KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Soccer fans and many who might not even follow sports are getting ready for Team USA’s World Cup match with Iran on Tuesday.
On the field, the Americans need a win to advance to the next round, but tensions have been rising between the two nations for generations over human rights abuses, nuclear facilities and women’s rights.
Despite the fact that his squad has played one of the World Cup’s top teams to a draw right before having to win or go home Tuesday, USA Head Coach Gregg Berhalter was fending off questions about the deeper political meaning of his team’s match against Iran.
“When I think about this match, I know that a lot of other constituents have another feeling towards it but for us, it’s a soccer game against a good team and it’s not much more than that,” said Berhalter.
No matter how much he and his players want to frame it that way, UMKC associate political science professor Dr. Debra Leiter said it’s just not possible.
“The United States has identified Iran as one of its rivals and Iran has certainly targeted the United States as its key geopolitical rival,” said Dr. Leiter.
Protests in Iran erupted months ago after a woman died in the morality police’s custody. Those have even reached the World Cup before being quickly muted by officials in Qatar.
The Iranian soccer team opted not to sing their own national anthem before its first game in what seemed like a move to show support for protestors. But the team sang the anthem before its second game, seemingly sending mixed signals.
Even when the Iranian team’s work on the field gets coverage, the political implications are never far behind.
“Nearly every article follows with a discussion of the Iranian protests,” Leiter said.
But then, US Soccer social media accounts briefly displayed an altered Iranian flag that was also meant to show support for the protestors, prompting Iran to call for the United States to be kicked out of the tournament.
On Monday, US midfielder Tyler Adams was berated by a reporter from an Iranian state-owned network for how he pronounced Iran, before being asked, “Are you OK to be representing a country that has so much discrimination against Black people in its own borders?”
“There’s discrimination everywhere you go,” said Adams, noting that he’s traveled and lived abroad while playing for teams in Germany and the United Kingdom. “In the U.S., we’re continuing to make progress every single day.”
After a game Monday, a protestor ran across the field holding a pride flag and wearing a shirt supporting women’s rights in Iran.
“One of the things that world leaders know is that international sporting events are a fantastic and dangerous place for them,” Leiter said.
The biggest risk, said Leiter, is that a larger stage also draws attention to the aspects of a country’s culture that normally isn’t under the microscope, and that leaders would prefer to keep out of the spotlight.
Qatar has been dealing with similar issues since hosting the World Cup drew more attention to what the government there does and does not allow its own people to do.
Brian Bliss played through similar situations with the U.S. Men’s National Team in the 1980s and 1990s.
“Unfortunately, politics is soccer and soccer is politics,” Bliss said. “It’s just the way it works around the world.”
Leiter said she’ll be watching the Iranian team before the game to see if they give any signals about how they’re feeling and who they’re supporting. How they act during their national anthem and toward the American players could carry a lot of meaning as they navigate a delicate political atmosphere.
The game will be broadcast on FOX4 and is scheduled to start at 1 p.m. Tuesday.
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