The last World Cup clash between the United States and Iran 24 years ago is considered one of the most politically charged matches in soccer history. Tuesday night’s match in Qatar likely eclipsed it.
The Americans prevailed 1-0 on the pitch, where no one mentioned Iran’s nationwide protests, its expanding nuclear program and regional and international attacks linked back to Tehran. But those factors pushed the match beyond the stadium and into geopolitics.
Even some protesters at Al Thumama Stadium said they felt threatened by pro-government officials on hand.
“The government of Iran does not look at it as just a football game but a political platform to show the world, ‘Look, we are just normal people having fun, nothing is going on,’” said Farshid, a 47-year-old Iranian from London on hand for the match who gave only his first name for fear of reprisals. “But now thousands of people are in the streets of Iran.”
Determining when relations soured between the U.S. and Iran depends on who you ask. Iranians point to the 1953 CIA-backed coup that cemented Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi’s power. Americans remember the 1979 takeover of the U.S. Embassy followed by a 444-day hostage crisis during the Iranian Revolution.
In soccer, however, the timeline is much simpler. This was only the second time Iran and the U.S. have played each other in the World Cup.
The last time was at the 1998 tournament in France — a totally different time in the Islamic Republic. Iran won 2-1 in Lyon, a low point for the U.S. men’s team as Iranians celebrated in Tehran.
At the time, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei praised the Iranian team, saying “the strong and arrogant opponent felt the bitter taste of defeat.”
But off the pitch, Iran’s then-president, Mohammad Khatami, sought to improve ties to the West and the wider world. Inside Iran, Khatami pushed so-called reformist policies, seeking to liberalize aspects of its theocracy while maintaining its structure with a supreme leader at the top.
The two teams posed for a joint photograph in 1998, and the Iranian players handed white flowers to their American opponents. The U.S. gave the Iranians U.S. Soccer Federation pennants. They even exchanged jerseys, though the Iranians didn’t put them on. They later played a friendly exhibition match in Pasadena, California, as well.
Fast-forward 24 years, and relations are perhaps more tense than ever.
Iran is now governed entirely by hard-liners after the election of President Ebrahim Raisi. A protege of Khamenei, Raisi was in the judiciary at the time of the 1988 mass executions of thousands of political prisoners at the end of the Iran-Iraq war and as part of the judiciary had a role in the state carrying out the death sentences.
Following the collapse of Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, sparked by President Donald Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the accord, Tehran is now enriching uranium to 60% purity — a short, technical step from weapons-grade levels. Non-proliferation experts warn that the Islamic Republic already has enough uranium to build at least one nuclear bomb.
A shadow war of drone strikes, targeted killings and sabotage has been shaking the wider Middle East for years amid the deal’s collapse. Meanwhile, Russia pounds civilian areas and power infrastructure in Ukraine with Iranian-made drones.
For two months, Iran has been convulsed by the mass protests that followed the Sept. 16 death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman who had been detained by the country’s morality police. At least 451 people have been killed since the demonstrations started, and well over 18,000 have been arrested, according to Human Rights Activists in Iran, an advocacy group following the demonstrations.
At the World Cup in Qatar, Iran’s 2-0 win against Wales provided a brief moment of good news for hard-liners. After the match, riot police in Tehran waved Iranian flags in the street, something that angered demonstrators. Khamenei himself acknowledged that the victory “stirred joy in the country.”
However, the supreme leader warned that “when the World Cup is taking place, all eyes are on it. The opponent typically takes advantage of this lax moment to act.”
As the demonstrations intensified, Iran has alleged without providing evidence that its enemies abroad, including the U.S., are fomenting the unrest. At a World Cup where organizers hoped to divorce politics from the pitch, those tensions have bled out into the area around the stadiums with pro- and anti-government demonstrators shouting at each other.
Ahead of Tuesday’s match, Iran released a propaganda video featuring young children singing and waving flags, including girls in white hijabs, in front of a small field. Set against a blasting synthesizer beat, they sang: “We back you on the bleachers, all with one voice Iran, Iran.”
“We are waiting for a goal, our heart second by second is beating for our Iran,” they added.
But no goal came. Christian Pulisic knocked in a goal for the U.S. in the 38th minute, and Iran never answered, despite a deafening pro-Iranian crowd chanting constantly during the match.
The loss will likely further enrage Iran’s hard-liners. Already, they’ve reacted angrily to a protest by the U.S. Soccer Federation in which the group briefly erased the emblem of the Islamic Republic from Iran’s flag in social media posts.
Opponents of Iran’s government were on hand in Qatar with their own message. Among them was former U.S. State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus, who served in the Trump administration and was one of the faces of its so-called “maximum pressure” campaign.
“It’s one of those pivotal moments when geopolitics and sports collides,” Ortagus told The Associated Press. “You’re seeing the Iran team do what they can to stand up for the protesters and the people peacefully demonstrating.”