The flag affair dominates the pre-match phase after the US Soccer Federation posts an Iranian flag without the emblem of the Islamic Republic. Iran’s revolutionary guards tell the Iranian team to “behave”. The protests that followed the death of Mahsa Amini are overshadowing the sporting event. The two teams met once before, in France 1998, ending in an Iranian victory. Qatar is using the event to boost its regional role as a mediator.
Milan (AsiaNews) – Oil, nuclear programmes, sanctions, proxy wars, and geopolitics pit opposing visions of the world, theocracy vs democracy, the latter exported to the world not always with good results (see Iraq and Syria).
Now a football match will promote the winner to the knockout phase of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar; for many analysts, the tournament is the most politicised and controversial edition; it is also the first in history to be played in a Middle Eastern nation.
The Ayatollah and the Great Satan
The match between Iran and the United States at 10 pm this evening local time goes beyond sport, given its highly charged diplomatic, social and economic significance. It mirrors and symbolises a World Cup that has generated more spin off the fields than on it.
Perhaps not since the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow and 1984 in Los Angeles, when the United States and the Soviet union boycotted the other’s Games, has an international sporting event become so political.
At present, street protests have spread like wildfire in Iran, following the death of a 22-year-old Kurdish woman, Mahsa Amini in the custody of the morality police, who had arrested her for not covering her head correctly.
The young woman has become the symbol of a struggle for freedom and rights, with women taking the lead, and paying the price for the regime’s brutal crackdown.
US-based CNN has reported that the relatives of Iranian players have been threatened of arrest and torture if they do not “behave” before the match against the United States.
The warning follows the players’ refusal to sing the Iranian national anthem in the match with England, seen by some as a silent show of solidarity towards protesters in Iran. Since then, the Iranian team has met with a delegation from the Revolutionary Guard (Pasdaran).
In the second match with Wales the players did sing the anthem, to the disappointment of Iranians at home and in the diaspora, who felt somewhat betrayed.
In addition, Iranian authorities decided to send more supporters to watch the next match, people loyal to the theocratic regime, to generate an atmosphere of support and warmth around the team inside the stadium.
This began with the match with Wales, but will take on greater significance tonight.
Moreover, the pre-match atmosphere had already heated up, due to the controversy that arose around the US Soccer Federation’s decision to present the Iranian flag on social media without the emblem of the Islamic Republic.
Iran reacted swiftly calling for the exclusion of the United States; when US authorities distanced themselves from the flag incident, the Iranian flag reappeared with its emblem. But this goes to show how easy things can get out of hand.
The mother of all matches
This evening’s match is not the first time the two teams played each. In 1998, during the World Cup in France, the Iran-US match struck a chord and became "the mother of all matches".
The match ended with an Iranian victory of 2 to 1 when Mehdi Mahdavikia scored at the 84th minute. The player was treated like a national hero when he went home and the event was called “the most politically charged match in World Cup history”.
The situation now is very different against the background of brutal mass repression against people protesting for freedom and rights.
Among the most significant moments, the initial greeting between the teams that by FIFA regulation - the body that governs world football - provides that the B team (in that case Iran) goes to the A team for a handshake.
In 1998, the supreme leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei, "gave express orders that the Iranian team must not walk towards the Americans". Mehrdad Masoudi, one of the FIFA media officers of the match, negotiated with the US team, and as a result, the Americans walked towards the Iranians.
Nevertheless, the match took place in a very different atmosphere, characterised by substantial fairness and sportsmanship; moreover, in the pre-match ceremony, organised in detail, the players of Team Melli (as Iran’s national team is called) gave white roses to US players as a token of peace.
According to Masoudi, after the historic victory, Iranians poured into the streets of Tehran to dance and sing.
Eventually, Iranian-born US player Afshin Ghotbi, inspired by the match, accepted to coach the national team in 2009-2011, the first American to take on a leading role in Iran since the birth of the Islamic Republic.
US players also never forgot the match. Former US defender Jeff Agoos said that, "We did more in 90 minutes than the politicians did in 20 years." Eighteen months later, the teams played a friendly match at Pasadena just outside of Los Angeles, home to the largest population of Iranian Americans outside Iran. The game finished in a 1–1 draw.
Regional tensions on display
In a world of contradictions and politics, fate played a trick on two old enemies for a spot in the knockout rounds.
Politics is never far away. During last night’s match between Portugal and Uruguay at the Lusail stadium, where the final will be played on 18 December, a protester carrying a rainbow flag invaded the pitch during the match.
He wore a t-shirt with “Save Ukraine” on the front and “Respect for Iranian women” on the back. Stewards chased him and he dropped the flag before being taken off the field.
Gay rights are another issue at this "historic and controversial" event together with the exploitation of workers, with a death toll of at least 6,500 workers losing their life during the 10 year-construction period.
Before the tournament, FIFA had written to all 32 teams to tell them to "focus on football" and leave aside other issues.
Warnings and possible suspensions prompted several players, including the captains of Germany, England and Wales, not to wear the traditional armband with the colours of the rainbow as announced.
Earlier, Khalid Salman, the ambassador for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, referred to homosexuality as a “mental health problem”, sparking anger among human rights groups.
In addition to Iran's matches, those with the greatest non-sporting nature saw people wear pro-Mahsa Amini and “Woman, Life, Freedom” shirts, plus flags that referred to human rights violations, exploitation, and marginalisation.
Some spectators waved Palestinian flags and Qatari players wore pro-Palestinian arm bands, while Assyrian-Chaldeans waved their flag and posted pictures on social media.
The Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, wrapped the Saudi flag around his neck at the Argentina-Saudi Arabia match, which the Saudis won against all odds.
This is not an insignificant move, considering that for years the two countries have been at loggerheads (Gulf crisis), with the small emirate ostracised by his immediate neighbours.
In another conciliatory show, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan shook hands with his Egyptian counterpart, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, during the opening ceremony on 20 November, after the two fell out over the Arab Spring and the Muslim Brotherhood.
For Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a political scientist at Rice University's Baker Institute in the United States, “decade of geopolitical rivalries” showed once again Qatar’s role as a mediator and its ability to "tread a fine balance” in regional politics.
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