Iran and the US are set for their clash on the soccer pitch with both at the risk of elimination from the 2022 Qatar World Cup, one of the most contentious in history.
The final of Group B – the most politically charged group at this year's tournament – is set to be held on Tuesday night. Iran won its previous match against 10-man Wales 2-0 after its humiliating 6-2 loss against England. The Americans, however, displayed a stable performance in their two earlier matches that ended with a goalless draw against England and a 1-1 tie with Wales.
The Iranian squad – nicknamed Team Melli – needs at least a draw to book a berth for the knockout stage but the Yanks must defeat Iran if they want to keep their hopes alive in the competitions. However, Team Melli players are between a rock and a hard place as many Iranians believe the so-called national team does not represent the nation and is only a propaganda tool for the ruling Islamic regime.
One of the controversial issues is whether or not Team Melli would sing along with the Islamic Republic anthem. The players remained silent during their opener against England but after the match, people’s reactions on social media and streets indicated that the gesture was not enough to forgive the players, who have lost popularity due to their lack of support for the current wave of popular protests. In their second match, the players sang along with the anthem and even celebrated boisterously after scoring goals and winning the match, setting the ground for the world to witness the rift in Iranian society.
Most Iranians were filled with mixed emotions following the match against Wales. Until recently, whenever Team Melli managed to defeat another country, people would pour into streets and celebrate as security forces were watching and waiting for them to start chanting antigovernment slogans, so they would intervene and disperse the crowd. This time was different. Security forces – some of whom were killing the antigovernment protesters since September – seemed to have been ordered to celebrate and dance on streets, creating some of the most surreal scenes in large cities. The regime had managed to make the players so distant from the people that an event – which historically tends to morph into an antigovernment rally – turned into a show of public satisfaction for the regime.
Team Melli coach Carlos Queiroz (center) during the press conference on the eve of the match against the United States on November 28, 2022
It did not take long until documents and audio footage were leaked online that proved people’s conjectures were actually right. The hacktivist group Black Reward got access to Fars news agency, affiliated with the country’s Revolutionary Guards, and released documents that showed the Islamic Republic had taken numerous measures to make the best use of the World Cup opportunity in Qatar. They had done everything they could think of for a good show in support of the Islamic Republic: from giving free tickets to over 6,000 of their apparatchiks to attend the matches; collaborating with Qatari officials to get the list of people who had bought tickets, and ensuring that Team Melli’s coach Carlos Queiroz would cooperate with them in their plans. They even pulled some strings to make sure that Iran International reporters were not allowed in Qatar.
A jimmy jump runs onto the pitch wearing a t-shirt with a message saying 'Respect for Iranian Women' and holding a rainbow flag during the match between Portugal and Uruguay on November 28, 2022.
Citing a source involved in the security of the games, CNN reported Monday that even the families of Team Melli players have been threatened with imprisonment and torture if the players fail to “behave” ahead of the match against the USA. The source added that the players were called to a meeting with members of the Revolutionary Guard (IRGC), saying that they were told their families would face “violence and torture” if they did not sing the anthem or if they show any act of protest against the Tehran regime.
Sunday night, Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi also held a phone conversation with Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani and football was not mentioned in official reports about the call, but for many Iranians something must have been discussed.