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Opinion | World Cup exit is a loss for Iran, but hopefully not for Iranians

DOHA, QATAR—Orwell’s much-used line that sports is war without the shooting can be true, but sports can be peace, too. Before the United States played Iran at this Gulf World Cup, the political backdrop was a little fevered: Iran’s repressive government is crushing protests at home, and the protest has echoed in Qatar, and the U.S. social media team tried a little light international diplomacy here before yanking it back. The winner would escape the group, too. Tuesday’s game meant something.

Just maybe not what you might think. This was not Iran versus the Great Satan, as the Ayatollah Khomeini used to call them. There was no visible animosity between the Iranian and American fans who came streaming into Al Thumama Stadium. Several Iranians happily posed with the duo dressed as Abraham Lincoln and George Washington, if Abraham Lincoln and George Washington wore sunglasses.

If anything, security versus fans was a much more energetic fight. There were reports of Iranian women having their bras checked for protest materials. One clutch of elderly Scottish-Americans had to argue to keep the pins on their kilts.

The tension was within Iran itself. Iran has been a flashpoint of this World Cup, because Iran is being roiled by a brutal crackdown on the anti-government protests that have erupted since the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in September. She was arrested, allegedly for not covering her hair according to Islamic custom, and died while still in custody three days later.

So Iranian fans have been detained here for wearing Woman, Life, Freedom T-shirts, which is a rallying cry of the protests; the Iranian team refused to sing the anthem in Iran’s first match with England, and then sang weakly in their second match; and CNN subsequently reported that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps had threatened their families with torture and imprisonment if they did not sing the anthem, or if they took part in any political protest.

They sang the anthem, though without a lot of gusto. Iran coach Carlos Queiroz called it stupidity and disinformation that his players had been threatened, but he’d have to, wouldn’t he?

Meanwhile, the U.S. Soccer Federation had posted — and subsequently deleted — images of the Iranian flag without the emblem of the ruling Islamic Republic, in an attempt to show solidarity with the Iranian protests. The players and coach say they had nothing to do with it, but Iran state media called for the U.S. to be kicked out of the tournament for the insult.

And then the match happened, and it was almost simple. The Americans were younger and faster and their captain, Christian Pulisic, took a knee to what looked like his testicles to score the only American goal, and then tried to keep playing, looking like a guy who had been hoofed in the testicles, before being sent to hospital as a precaution. In the second half, Iran missed its chances. That’s all. The U.S. advanced to the round of 16 with England, and Iran will go home to a country full of tumult. And they parted with respect.

“It’s fair to say that we should score in the second half, and the draw was the right result of this game, but in football fair doesn’t exist,” said Queiroz. “Congratulations to the U.S., all the best to them in the second round of the World Cup.

And of his own team — whom he tried to insulate when they refused to sing in their first match — he said, “I am very proud and I’m honoured for having the chance to be a coach for the Iran squad and the players are fantastic. I said earlier in 2018, 2019, that throughout my career I trained several teams: U.S., South Africa, (Portugal, Egypt, Colombia), England. And throughout my career I’ve never seen players that gave so much and received so little in return, and for that they deserve all my respect and admiration.”

Again, it must be impossible to be an Iranian player here, if you care about the protests. Some Iranians think you don’t because you met with Iranian leadership before you left. Really, all you can do is play. So they did, and they lost, and they fell to the turf as the Americans ran to celebrate together.

And then the Americans started drifting over to their opponents, one by one. A hug, kneeling next to a prone player, a pat on the shoulder, and respect. That lasted a while.

And then something happened. With the gloomy acknowledgment that the U.S. has its own fundamentalist theocratic movement on the boil, this was simple: There was no way for the Iranian team to win a victory for the people of Iran without handing one to the government of Iran, too.

And while that’s true of every nation that cares about football — the iconic yellow Brazil jersey was politicized by the recently defeated mad president, Jair Bolsonaro — the Iran example is so present, so real.

Iranians have been warned they are being surveilled here; the IRGC can apparently move freely in Qatar. After the match a Dutch TV crew was detained by Qatari police for recording what was described as pro-government Iranians attacking other Iranians. Several videos surfaced that claimed to be of Iranians in Iran celebrating the U.S. victory, which would be extraordinary.

The Iranian team lost. Their players fought hard, and are a solid team, and they needed the consoling when they fell to the turf. You hope they can go home and find peace. Iran losing was the best outcome here.

You just hope, above all, that Iranians win.


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