Iran-US FIFA World Cup clash fraught with political tension – report online

JOHN GAMBREL (Associated Press)

DOHA, Qatar (AP) — The last World Cup match between the United States and Iran 24 years ago is considered one of the most political matches in soccer history. Tuesday night’s match in Qatar probably eclipsed it.

The Americans won 1-0 on a pitch where no one mentioned Iran’s nationwide protests, its expanding nuclear program and regional and international attacks linked to Tehran. But these factors took the match beyond the stadium into geopolitics.

Even some protesters at Al-Thumama Stadium said they felt threatened by pro-government officials.

“The Iranian government doesn’t see it as just a football match, but as a political platform to show the world, ‘Look, we’re just normal people having fun, nothing’s happening,'” said Farshid, a 47-year-old Iranian from London at the match. who gave only his first name for fear of reprisal. “But now there are thousands of people on the streets of Iran.”

The definition of when US-Iran relations have soured depends on who you ask. Iranians cite a 1953 CIA-backed coup d’état that consolidated the power of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Americans remember the seizure of the US Embassy in 1979, followed by the 444-day hostage crisis during the Iranian Revolution.

However, in football, the schedule is much simpler. It was only the second time that Iran and the USA played each other in the World Cup.

The last time at the tournament in France in 1998 is a completely different time in the Islamic Republic. Iran won 2-1 in Lyon, the lowest score for the US men’s team, as the Iranians celebrated in Tehran.

At the time, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei praised the Iranian team, saying that “a strong and brazen opponent has tasted the bitter taste of defeat.”

But off the field, then-Iranian President Mohammad Khatami sought to improve ties with the West and the rest of the world. Inside Iran, Khatami pursued so-called reformist policies, seeking to liberalize aspects of its theocracy while maintaining a structure with a supreme leader at the top.

US President Bill Clinton and his administration hoped that Khatami’s election could be part of a warming relationship.

The two teams posed for a photo together in 1998, with Iranian soccer players handing their American rivals white flowers. The US gave the Iranians US Soccer Federation pennants. They even exchanged uniforms, although the Iranians did not wear them. Later, they also played a friendly exhibition match in Pasadena, California.

Fast forward 24 years and the relationship is perhaps more strained than ever.

Iran is now fully ruled by hardliners after the election of President Ebrahim Raisi, a protégé of Khamenei who was involved in the 1988 mass execution of thousands of political prisoners at the end of the Iran-Iraq war.

After the collapse of Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers in 2015, triggered by President Donald Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the agreement, Tehran is now enriching uranium to 60% purity — a short technical step from weapons-grade levels. Nuclear non-proliferation experts warn that the Islamic Republic already has enough uranium to build at least one nuclear bomb.

A shadow war of drones, targeted killings and sabotage has rocked the Middle East for years amid the collapse of the deal. Meanwhile, Russia strikes civilian areas and the energy infrastructure of Ukraine with Iranian-made drones.

For two months, Iran has been convulsed by mass protests that began on September 16 following the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman who was detained by the country’s moral police. At least 451 people have been killed since the demonstrations began and more than 18,000 have been arrested, according to Human Rights Watch in Iran, a rights group following the demonstrations.

Iran’s 2-0 win against Wales at the World Cup in Qatar was a brief bit of good news for hardliners. After the match, riot police in Tehran waved Iranian flags in the streets, which angered protesters. Khamenei himself admitted that the victory “caused joy in the country.”

However, the Supreme Leader warned that “when the World Cup is held, all eyes are on him. The opponent usually uses this weak point to act.’

As the demonstrations intensified, Iran said, without providing evidence, that its enemies abroad, including the United States, were fomenting the unrest. At the World Cup, where organizers hoped to keep politics off the pitch, those tensions spilled over into the grounds around the stadiums, with pro- and anti-government protesters shouting at each other.

Ahead of Tuesday’s match, Iran released a propaganda video showing young children singing and waving flags, including girls wearing white hijabs, in front of a small pitch. Over a blaring synthesizer, they sang: “We’re rooting for you in the stands, all in one voice, Iran, Iran.”

“We are waiting for the goal, our heart is beating second by second for our Iran,” they added.

But there was no goal. Christian Pulisic scored against the USA in the 38th minute and Iran never responded despite the deafening pro-Iranian crowd chanting continuously throughout the match.

The loss is likely to further enrage Iran’s hardliners. They have already reacted angrily to a protest by the U.S. Soccer Federation, which saw the group briefly erase the Islamic Republic emblem from Iran’s flag in social media posts.

Opponents of the Iranian government were in Qatar with their own message. Among them is the former press secretary of the US State Department, Morgan Ortagus, who worked in the Trump administration and was one of the faces of its so-called “maximum pressure” campaign.

“This is one of those pivotal moments where geopolitics and sports collide,” Ortagus told The Associated Press. “You see the Iranian team doing everything they can to support the protesters and the people who are demonstrating peacefully.”


Associated Press writer Isabelle Debre contributed to this report.


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