Tensions are set to rise between the US and Iran, not only in the political realm but also on the football pitch ahead of tomorrow's much-anticipated encounter at the World Cup in Qatar. The only time the two countries have met was once, at France 98, where Team Melli defeated the US 2-1. The Iranian side started off their campaign poorly after the 6-2 thrashing by England, only to put on a redeeming, dominant display against Wales, winning 2-0. Now all that stands in their way before progressing on to the next round is the Stars and Stripes.
The FIFA World Cup which is being held for first time in the Middle East and in an Arab and Muslim-majority country has been beset with criticism and controversy ever since the Gulf State won its bid back in 2010, with its human rights record being at the forefront for the mainly Western critics. This, including biased media coverage singling out the tournament from the outset, such as the BBC's refusal to air the Opening Ceremony, and its panel of virtue-signalling pundits, has been both hypocritical and unprecedented.
The Iranian national football team has not been spared the selective moral outrage, with several calls by various activists and human rights organisations demanding that Iran be suspended from the World Cup in light of women's rights following the death of Mahsa Amini in September. Despite this, the country's participation in Qatar went ahead. Nonetheless, there have been several instances of political and social issues being raised this year, such as some European countries expressed intent to wear the so-called "OneLove" armband, including the German side's "protest" gesture ahead of their 2-1 loss to Japan.
For the Iran team and its supporters, there have also been incidents such as a female Iranian fan being removed from a match for holding a Mahsa Amini T-shirt and others being arrested by Qatari police for showing support for women's rights in Iran. Supporters have been warned by FIFA's official fans' guide about "promoting any political, offensive and/or discriminatory messages" which is not permitted.
Players from the national side itself also made headlines over their refusal to sing the national anthem in their opening game against England, which received mixed reactions from Iranians and the Diaspora – remarkably, they opted to sing it before their victory over Wales, reportedly under no pressure to do so from the Iranian government. In a separate incident, BBC pundit and former German international and one-time coach of the US national team, Jurgen Klinsmann, has come under fire over his comments suggesting that the Iranian side's gamesmanship against Wales was due to their "culture".
Adding to the politically-charged atmosphere surrounding Iran and its domestic issues at the World Cup, the US Soccer Federation (USSF) used a modified version of the Islamic Republic's flag, omitting the emblem depicting the word "Allah" and the Islamic testimony of monotheism, sharing it on social media in a post of Group B' standings. According to a statement by the USSF, the deliberate move was to express "support for the women in Iran fighting for basic human rights". It may also have been to show solidarity with the large US-based, secular Diaspora. Using the pre-revolutionary flag, associated with the Pahlavi flag, which is so often used by those opposed to the Islamic Republic, would have been a step too far.
Despite this, the damage had been done, and the USSF backed down by deleting the provocative post and was amended with the correct flag in its place. The Iranian Football Federation (IFF), for its part, lodged an official complaint with FIFA against the USSF.
— Richard Medhurst (@richimedhurst) November 27, 2022
According to Iran's ISNA news agency, Safiollah Fagahanpour, an adviser to the IFF, said that the "measures taken regarding the Islamic Republic of Iran flag are against the law" of the governing football body. "They must be held responsible," Fagahanpour said. "Obviously they want to affect Iran's performance against the US by doing this."
Yesterday, the news agency reported that "In an unprofessional act, the Instagram page of the US football federation removed the Allah symbol from the Iranian flag".
"The Iran Football Federation sent an email to FIFA to demand it issue a serious warning to the US Federation," it added.
Iran's Tasnim news agency also quoted Fagahanpor as saying "Respecting a nation's flag is an accepted international practice that all other nations must emulate. The action conducted in relation to the Iranian flag is unethical and against international law."
By posting a distorted image of the flag of the Islamic Republic of #Iran on its official account, the #US football team breached the @FIFAcom charter, for which a 10-game suspension is the appropriate penalty.
Team #USA should be kicked out of the #WorldCup2022 pic.twitter.com/c8I4i4z3Tv
— Tasnim News Agency (@Tasnimnews_EN) November 27, 2022
The agency also quoted Section 13 of FIFA's Disciplinary Code which states: "Any person who offends the dignity or integrity of a country, a person or group of people through contemptuous, discriminatory or derogatory words or actions (by any means whatsoever) on account of race, skin colour, ethnic, national or social origin, gender, disability, language, religion, political opinion, wealth, birth or any other status or any other reason, shall be sanctioned with a suspension lasting at least ten matches or a specific period, or any other appropriate disciplinary measure."
As such, there have been calls by Iranian media for the US to be suspended from the World Cup in accordance with FIFA's rules. However, there has been no official comment so far by FIFA, and the USSF being penalised over the post seems unlikely, reported The Guardian.
Indeed, politics is difficult to separate from sports; it is intrinsically-linked with the modern game. Tomorrow's fixture is especially significant for both sides, not only to qualify for the final 16 of the World Cup, but because of the decades-old geopolitical rivalry between the two countries. Judging by some of the entertaining and shocking results in some of the games, so far, including Saudi Arabia and Morocco's victories over Argentina and Belgium, respectively, we are likely to be in for another outstanding game of football in a tournament that was pessimistically written-off long before it kicked off.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.