The politics of anti-regime protests are dominating the run-up to a World Cup showdown between the United States and Iran, with coaches and players fielding politically charged questions ahead of Tuesday’s game.
Given the longstanding hostility between Washington and Tehran, any sports competition between the two countries has political overtones. But the recent wave of street protests in Iran has injected a particularly strong dose of politics, especially after the US Soccer Federation tweeted an altered Iranian flag, one without the emblem of the Islamic republic, to show solidarity with Iranian women demonstrating against the government.
Iran responded by demanding that the US be expelled from the quadrennial tournament, arguing that the social media posts, which also appeared on Facebook and Instagram, violated the rules and regulations of FIFA, the sport’s governing body.
The US federation later said the posts were intentional but would now show the Iranian flag in its entirety. The State Department said it had not coordinated in any way with the soccer federation, and the US team said it was not informed of the symbolic gesture beforehand.
Beyond the political storm, the game itself has a lot riding on it, as the young Team USA needs a win to advance to the next stage of the tournament. But at a press conference on the eve of the game, coach Gregg Berhalter and team captain Tyler Adams faced one political question after another from Iranian journalists.
When asked about his views on US visa restrictions for Iranian citizens, Berhalter said: “I don’t know enough about politics. I’m a soccer coach.» He was also asked what he thought about the US military presence in the Persian Gulf.
Meanwhile, an Iranian reporter lectured Adams about his pronunciation of the country’s name, saying it was not «I-RAN» but «EE-RON.»
“First of all, you say that you support the Iranian people, but you are mispronouncing the name of our country,” the reporter said. He then asked Adams how he felt about playing for a country «that has so much discrimination against blacks in its own borders.»
Adams, whose biological father is African-American, apologized for his pronunciation of Iran and responded to the question about race relations.
“You know, one thing I’ve learned, especially from living abroad the last few years and having to fit in with different cultures and assimilate into different cultures, is that in the US we keep making progress every single day,” Adams said. , who plays for Leeds United in the English Premier League. He added: «I think as long as you see progress, that’s the most important thing.»
When Iran coach Carlos Queiroz spoke to reporters, he also tried to steer the discussion away from politics.
“I understand your questions and the stories that you as professionals need to bring,” Queiroz said. But he added: “Let’s enjoy that party. Let’s enjoy the show.»
Street protests in Iran began in September, when a 22-year-old woman from the country’s Kurdish region died in hospital three days after being arrested and charged with violating the country’s strict dress code.
Protests at home have followed the Iran soccer team during the World Cup, which began on November 20 in Qatar. At some of the games, Qatari police confiscated T-shirts or posters supporting protests in Iran.
Team captain Ehsan Hajsafi expressed his empathy for the Iranians’ protests at a news conference.
“We have to accept that the situation in our country is not good and that our people are not happy, they are discontent,” Hajsafi said. “We are here, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be their voice or that we shouldn’t respect them. Everything we have is theirs.»
Last week, Iran’s players refused to sing the country’s national anthem before their opening match against England in an apparent act of defiance against their government.
Most recently, a prominent former soccer player in Iran, Voria Ghafouri, was arrested after supporting the protests, according to media linked to the Iranian state. He was later released on bail, Iranian media and others reported.
Politics aside, Jürgen Klinsmann, the former German soccer star who coached the United States men’s team at the 2014 World Cup, angered Iran with a comment last week about its soccer «culture,» suggesting that players Iranians use tricks to influence referees.
“This is just part of their culture. This is how they play. They work the referee. You saw the bench always jumping, the linesman always working, constantly in his ears. They’re constantly in your face.» Klinsmann, a BBC commentator, said after Iran defeated Wales 2-0 on Friday.
The US men’s team last faced Iran at a World Cup in 1998, and the Americans lost 2-1 in a bitter defeat that saw jubilant Iranian fans take to the streets, in stark contrast to the mood in Iran ahead of the current match, which has been marred by protests and the regime’s violent crackdown. Iranians have burned posters promoting the national team even as members have signaled their support for the protesters, and there were no large crowds after Iran’s victory over Wales in their last match.
Berhalter played for the US team in the last game, which was also overshadowed by political tensions between the two countries. The coach at the time, Steve Sampson, said last week that it was difficult to focus on the game because of the politics surrounding it.
“It was a challenge to keep the players focused,” Samson said.
In a departure from protocol, the two teams posed for a photo together before the game, with the Iranian side handing out white roses in a gesture of peace.
But in hindsight, Sampson said, she wished she hadn’t agreed to the photo shoot.
“I’ve pondered this for years,” Sampson said. «If I had to do it all over again, I would not have allowed the exchange of roses or the joint photo.»