When the US and Iran players take to the pitch for their critical World Cup clash on Tuesday, they will be jogging on a bed of hot geopolitical embers.
The match, which the US must win to advance to the knockout phase of the tournament, will take place amid an extraordinary controversy that draws attention even for this year’s World Cup, which was already in danger of being remembered as a political issue more than political. spectacular sports.
The United States Soccer Federation this weekend changed the flag of Iran on its social media page to highlight the struggles of women protesters inside the Islamic Republic. But she may have inadvertently created a huge distraction for her own team ahead of their biggest game in years.
The move prompted Iranian state-aligned media agency Tasnim to tweet that “Team #USA should be kicked out of #WorldCup2022.” Then, on Monday, US coach Gregg Berhalter and Captain Tyler Adams were questioned by Iranian journalists about US travel bans, naval exercises in the Persian Gulf and their pronunciation of “eye ran.” . Adams, who is African-American, was also asked how he feels about representing a country where there is so much racial discrimination.
Berhalter said he and his players did not know about the US Soccer publication ahead of time, but also tried to defuse the dispute. “We had no idea what US Soccer was putting out. The staff, the players, we had no idea,” Berhalter said. “All we can do is apologize on behalf of the players and staff. But it’s not something we were a part of.” Adams gently apologized for mispronouncing “Iran” and insisted that the United States had seen remarkable progress in race relations. But both his captain and his coach seemed to prefer answering questions about his four defenses than the four-decade proxy war between the United States and a nation that calls him “The Great Satan.”
US Soccer’s gesture may also have provided an opportunity for the Iranian media and authorities to divert attention from the protests within their country, which Iranian soccer players apparently tried to highlight at great personal risk, with some refusing to sing the anthem. national team in their first game in the tournament. and defender Ehsan Hajsafi telling the press that the team supports Iran’s protest movement.
CNN’s Sam Kiley reports that relatives of the players have been threatened with jail and worse if they don’t “behave” before the USA game. A source also told him the Revolutionary Guard Corps Islámica sent dozens of officials to monitor the team, adding unimaginable pressure to what it already faces at a World Cup.
The emotions surrounding this clash are just the latest example of the political winds engulfing soccer’s premier event, first sparked by FIFA’s choice of Qatar as host, sparking fierce debate over human rights, LGBTQ+, women and workers.
It is nothing new for global tensions to play out at a sporting event: the best example in the United States is the much mythologized “Miracle on Ice” victory of the US ice hockey team over the powerful Soviet Union in the deep cold of the Cold War at 1980 Olympic Games. But deliberately adding to the politicization of an already highly sensitive game between the US and Iran could turn into a political own goal.