Cup tensions pale to protests in Iran

- Nancy Armour Columnist USA TODAY

DOHA, Qatar – The sides were clear the last time Iran and the United States played in a World Cup. It was 1998, 20 years after the overthrow of the U.S.backed government in Iran, and America was still the “Great Satan.” To beat the USMNT was to strike a blow for national pride, and if there were any conflicted feelings over whether Team Melli represente­d the people of Iran or was a tool of its theocratic government, they could be left for another day.

Now the United States is almost a bystander in the political overtones surroundin­g Tuesday’s game, the protests that have inflamed Iran engulfing the team at the World Cup.

“It’s going to be a lot less about U.S.Iran tensions and more about Iran-Iran tensions,” said Kristin Diwan, a senior scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, D.C.

Other than an awkward and brief show of support for women in Iran by U.S. Soccer over the weekend and performati­ve questions by Iranian journalist­s to U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter on Monday, there seems little appetite for making this game a proxy war in relations between the two long-at-odds countries. Given the very real tragedies occurring in Iran, it seems inappropri­ate and out of place.

Protests that broke out following the death of Mahsa Amini, who had been arrested by the morality police for allegedly violating the conservati­ve dress code, have swept the country and grown to include men and women, young and old. While “Women Life Freedom” remains the rallying cry, protesters now are demanding regime change.

The tension has carried over to the World Cup, where fans wearing shirts with Amini’s name and carrying opposition flags and banners have clashed with government supporters. Some fans booed during the anthem before the first game. The media covering the team, officially state-affiliated or not, is decidedly pro-regime.

And in the middle of all this are the Iranian players.

Team Melli, as the national team is known, is seen by many to represent the Islamic Republic rather than Iran. Some have criticized the players for being an arm of the state, even though several have expressed support for protesters and the team did not sing the national anthem before its first game, against England. The team did sing the anthem before the game against Wales, but it was muted, devoid of passion and enthusiasm.

It is an almost unwinnable position the players are in.

The government’s response to the protests has been brutally violent, with hundreds of men, women and children beaten, shot at, arrested and even killed. Former players, once considered national heroes, have been arrested or had their passports confiscate­d for supporting the protests, taking part in them or criticizin­g the government.

There is little doubt the current players, nine of whom are based in Iran, could face reprisals when they return home, or that their families will suffer the consequenc­es, if they are seen as being anti-government.

“This is the national team and they will expect the team to represent the government in a way that reflects positively on it,” Diwan said. “It’s not riskfree at all, taking a stand.”

Iran coach Carlos Queiroz has tried to act as a buffer, reminding people after the first game that his players “are kids” and refusing to be drawn into anything that could be considered remotely political ahead of Tuesday’s match.

“We have solidarity to all humanitari­an causes. … If you talk about human rights, racism, kids that die in schools with shootings, we have solidarity with all those causes,” Queiroz said Monday. “But our mission here is to bring the smiles for the people for 90 minutes. That’s our mission . ... Let’s make tomorrow one more day that football wins. That’s our goal for tomorrow.”

The temperance appeared deliberate. Queiroz had reacted angrily when former USMNT coach Jurgen Klinsmann, who is working as a broadcaste­r at the World Cup, used the word “culture” in criticizin­g Iran. But Queiroz refused to discuss Klinsmann on Monday and brushed aside questions about U.S. Soccer removing the Islamic Republic emblem from Iran’s flag in two social media posts.

The posts, meant to show “support for the women in Iran fighting for basic human rights,” were taken down.

The Americans are such a young team that some weren’t born the last time the USMNT and Iran played in a World Cup. For them, Iran is another opponent not a geopolitic­al bogeyman. The only statement this game makes is whether they will advance.

For Iran, the stakes are higher – both here and at home. “We would like to make our people happy,” Karim Ansarifard said. “We will do our best, certainly, to keep the head of our country up.”

 ?? FADEL SENNA,/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES ?? Iran supporters wave their national flag bearing the word “woman” as they cheer during the World Cup match against England.
FADEL SENNA,/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES Iran supporters wave their national flag bearing the word “woman” as they cheer during the World Cup match against England.
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