DOHA, Qatar — In the last frantic moments of Tuesday’s U.S.-Iran World Cup match, as the United States clawed away a desperate Iranian attack, an American fan sitting not far from me wrenched of the black-banded white headdress that had accompanied the traditional Gulf Arab thawb he had chosen to wear to the game and flung it in the air. “Why?” he screamed.
The headdress settled somewhere else in the crowd and the nerve-wracked fan received for an answer only the referee’s whistle. The United States had narrowly won its last group stage game, securing qualification to the next round, with the Netherlands now standing in the way of a U.S. spot in the quarterfinals. Why had the battle with Iran’s team — an inferior, if tenacious, opponent — been so miserably tense? Probably because it couldn’t have gone any other way.
For a first-round match, the stakes could not have been higher. The United States had to win to progress to the second knockout stage and show that the promise of its rising generation of young stars was more than just potential. Iran had to avoid defeat (and trust in a blunt Wales failing against England, which it did). The team was hoping for a repeat of a famous 2-1 victory over the United States in the 1998 World Cup in France — still a major triumph in Iran’s sporting history. It was to be disappointed.
For two nations that have no diplomatic relations and no shortage of political enmity, there were plenty of tensions that had nothing to do with points and qualification. With mass anti-regime protests still roiling Iran, its national team muddled through the tournament under a harsh spotlight. Its players, many of whom expressed at least tacit support for the demonstrators, faced alleged pressure from regime officials as well as the anger of a segment of the Iranian diaspora that saw the team as a pawn of the regime.
The United States raised the temperature when its soccer federation put out images on social media of the Iranian team’s flag shorn of the insignia of the Islamic Republic. Those were swiftly deleted, but Iranian officials called for the U.S. to face punishment, even expulsion from the World Cup, for the act. It was yet another episode of political rancor at a tournament where organizers have dogmatically insisted politics have no place.
But, for Iran, you can tell an entire political story in the span of the generation that bridges American victory in Qatar and American defeat to Iran in Lyon 24 years ago. Unlike in 1998, there was no shared group photo of this year’s U.S. and Iranian players standing together in an appeal to the uniting power of sport. Unlike in 1998, the Iranian players did not offer roses to their U.S. counterparts before the match began. Amid an asphyxiating U.S. sanctions regime and constant threats of war, there were no fig leaves or olive branches to be dispensed.
The Iranian regime faces even more international scrutiny and criticism now, and plumbs even greater depths of grievance toward the United States and its Western allies. In 1998, a handful of anti-regime Iranian protesters chanted slogans against then-President Mohammad Khatami. These days, Khatami is a forlorn, marginal figure, a supposed “reformist” sidelined by the ascendancies of more hard line loyalists to the regime’s clerical establishment and irrelevant to the protesters clamoring for fundamental change on Iran’s streets.
“People feel reformists helped hard-liners by promising reforms that were impossible with hard-liners in power,” a former official who served in the Khatami administration told Reuters earlier this mont. “We should accept that the younger generation in Iran does not want us. The reform movement is dead.”
There was plenty of animosity on show in 1998, as well. Star Iranian striker Khodadad Azizi vowed vengeance for the ruinous Iran-Iraq war, which Iranians blamed on U.S. meddling: “Many families of martyrs are expecting us to win,” he said. “We will win for their sake.”
Speaking to the Guardian in 2018, Steve Sampson, who coached the losing 1998 U.S. side, lamented his team’s approach two decades prior. “I think the government of Iran made it a political match,” he said. “If I was to do it all over again, I would’ve brought up the history between the two countries with the players and used it as a motivational tool to get a result. But I chose not to at the time.”
Iran’s athletes have become, in some instances, figures of resistance to the regime. One of the stars of the Iranian national team in 1998 was legendary striker Ali Daei, who slipped in a crucial pass to set up his team’s winning goal against the Americans. Daei remains a popular national hero and has spoken in support of the protest movement in Iran, calling on authorities to release the many demonstrators swept up in crackdowns by security forces. He declined the opportunity to go to Qatar and cheer on the team both as a gesture of solidarity with the dissenters and due to an apparent backlash against him from pro-regime forces.
“I have received numerous threats against myself and my family in recent months and days from some organizations, medias and unknown individuals,” Daei said in a statement on Instagram. “I was taught humanity, honor, patriotism and freedom … What do you want to achieve with such threats?
What this Iranian team has achieved in fraught circumstances is an open question. They were panned for a disastrous opening game loss to England where none of the players sang the national anthem, before securing a clutch victory over Wales — where some of the players, perhaps goaded by authorities, did sing. “To make them the only people that they need to give you answers about the human being problems all over the world,” Carlos Queiroz, Iran’s coach, said at a news conference last week when confronted by questions over the protests, “I don’t think it’s fair.”
Before Tuesday’s match at al-Thumama stadium, myriad Iranian fans echoed that line. “I came all the way here from the United States to support the Iranian national team,” said a woman named Sherry, who said she lived in Houston, Texas, but sported Iranian colors. “It would be the same for me if it was under the Shah or if it’s under the Islamic Republic.”
Others expressed rage at the political status quo in Iran. “All spectators coming here have mixed feelings. The Islamic regime is trying to hijack this team’s success,” warned a man named Sina, who was born in Iran but lives in Sydney. He lamented the plight of hundreds of recent political prisoners in Iran, many of whom he feared will be executed.
Milad Seyedi and a group of his relatives journeyed to the game from Toronto. The Iranian team was “the people of Iran’s team,” not the regime’s squad. “They are under all sorts of pressures. Their families are under pressure,” Seyedi added. “We are not against them.” The jerseys that Seyedi and his siblings all wore were replica versions worn by the 1998 team. “That was a joyous time for us,” he said.