By RFE RL
By Michael Scollon
(RFE/RL) — The coaches of the U.S. and Iranian soccer teams have said that they do not want to get caught up in a game of political football when their sides clash for a chance to reach the knockout stage of the World Cup.
“I envision the game being hotly contested for the fact that both teams want to advance to the next round — not because of politics or because of relations between our countries,” U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter said ahead of the November 29 showdown at Al-Thumama Stadium in Qatar.
“Our preparation starts with a good rest, refresh the minds, and put all the complementary and garbage things outside of our minds,” said Carlos Queiroz, the Portuguese head coach of Iran’s national team.
But as the two coaches attempt to keep the focus on the playing field with either team assured of advancing to the next round with an outright victory, a political fever pitch looms over the game pitting two countries that severed relations more than 40 years ago and are open rivals on the world stage.
The World Cup has been a showcase of discord in Iran since the tournament kicked off on November 20, with Tehran’s deadly crackdown on ongoing anti-government demonstrations leading to fresh U.S. sanctions against Iranian officials and dividing the country’s fan base.
The Iranian team has faced immense pressure from the authorities and protesters alike to take sides amid the demonstrations, which are seen as one of the greatest threats to Iran’s clerical establishment since the Islamic Revolution in 1979.
The nationwide demonstrations erupted following the September 16 death of Mahsa Amini, an Iranian-Kurdish woman who died shortly after she was arrested for allegedly violating the state-mandated requirement that women wear the hijab, or head scarf.
According to rights watchdogs, at least 450 people have been killed and more than 15,000 detained in the government crackdown.
Some fans have honored Amini’s memory by wearing “Mahsa Amini-22” shirts in a nod to her age when she died.
In an apparent sign of solidarity with demonstrators, members of the Iranian team did not sing the country’s national anthem ahead of their first game, a 6-2 loss to England that was blamed partly on outside distractions. But the players did join in singing what anti-government demonstrators have called the “blood anthem” ahead of the second game, a 2-0 win against Wales on November 25.
While that result was cause for mass celebration, RFE/RL’s Radio Farda reported from Qatar that a group of pro-government fans who waved the flag of the Islamic republic harassed and intimidated a group of Iranian supporters who aired their grievances against the clerical regime.
Following the Wales match, a former coach of the U.S. team, Jurgen Klinsmann, came under fire for his postgame comments. Speaking as a pundit on the BBC, Klinsmann said the Iranian team “worked the referee.” “They work the linesman and fourth official, they are constantly in their ear,” he said. “There were a lot of incidents we didn’t see. This is their culture, they take you off your game.”
Queiroz — who coached Iran during two stints from 2011 to 2019 and was once hired by U.S. Soccer to develop a road map for the United States to win a World Cup by 2010 — responded with a torrent of tweets defending Iranian culture and his team. He said Klinsmann’s comments were a “disgrace to football.”
Just days before the decisive group match, the U.S. Soccer Federation triggered a row when it temporarily displayed Iran’s green, white, and red flag without the emblem of the Islamic republic in a social-media post.
The Iranian government responded angrily, with Iran’s hard-line Tasnim news agency calling for the U.S. team to be kicked out of the World Cup and suspended for 10 games.
The post was eventually removed, with U.S. Soccer explaining that the intention had been to show “support for the women in Iran fighting for basic human rights” by displaying the Iranian tricolor without the emblem for 24 hours.
Back in Iran, former members of the Iranian national soccer team have apparently been punished for supporting the ongoing demonstrations.
Voria Ghafouri, who has been an outspoken critic of the Iranian establishment and was surprisingly left out of this year’s World Cup squad, was reportedly arrested on November 24, just days after expressing sympathy for Amini’s family and calling for an end to the violent crackdown on protesters in his and Amini’s native western Kurdistan region.
Iranian state media reported that the 35-year-old Ghafouri had been arrested for “insulting the national soccer team and propagandizing against the government.”
Ghafouri earlier this month tweeted that “it is better to die standing than to live kneeling.” In June, he was accused by an Iranian official of being a Kurdish separatist after the player tweeted the word “Kurdistan” twice.
Iranian media reported that Ghafouri has been released on bail. But rights groups said he had been transferred from western Iran to a prison in the capital, Tehran.
Pressure has also been placed on an Iranian soccer legend, Ali Daei, who said he chose not to travel to Qatar due to the government’s crackdown and said on social media on November 28 he had received “numerous threats against myself and my family in recent months and days.”
The Black Reward hacktivist group, which has targeted Iranian government institutions and infrastructure, added to fears that Tehran was targeting fans by leaking recordings this week purporting to reveal an Iranian pro-government militia commander saying that Qatar had provided a list of Iranians who had purchased tickets to the World Cup, allowing the Iranian authorities to identify 500 individuals known for anti-government activities.
While Iran could progress with a draw on November 29, it cannot afford to lose if it wants to advance to the last 16. The United States has no option but to win.
The U.S. players have said they were unaware that U.S. Soccer had planned to publish its controversial flag post, while also publicly declaring their support for women’s rights.
The day before the big match, U.S. coach Berhalter was apologetic for the flag post but also insistent that he was not focusing on the controversies leading up to it.
“Of course, our thoughts are with the Iranian people, the whole country, the whole team, everyone, but our focus is on this match,” he said on November 28.