24 years after Iran beat the US 2-1 in France, arch-rivals meet again on world football’s biggest stage.
DOHA, QATAR — Souq Waqif – a marketplace in Qatar’s capital Doha – is buzzing with excitement. It’s the ‘big day’ at the FIFA World Cup with Iran and the US – two of the world’s fiercest political opponents – set to take their rivalry to the football ground.
Every now and then, flag-draped groups of football fans – of both countries – erupt in full-throated cries in a vocal show of support for their teams.
The last time the two nations met was in the 1998 edition of the tournament in France when Iran won 2-1 in Lyon, and former supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei mocked the Americans, saying “the strong and arrogant opponent felt the bitter taste of defeat”.
Much has changed in the world since then, but the political tensions between the two nations remain as deep as ever.
But for many fans of the two nations, the World Cup presents an opportunity for the two bitter rivals to enjoy the ‘beautiful game’ without the trappings of politics.
“...Once they (the teams) are on the field, they’re not going to even think about politics anymore. At the end of the day, especially in this day and age, they know how to separate politics from sports as they are professional athletes,” Kassim Fardoun, an American fan, tells TRT World.
“Should we consider them (Iranians) enemies? Not at all. Not at all. It’s all propaganda and an agenda to make people believe they are enemies.”
US and Iran fans posing for photos together ahead of tonight’s game (am off to the far less exciting England v Wales match) pic.twitter.com/qozBG4FKqu— Sean Ingle (@seaningle) November 29, 2022
Shaheen, an Iranian fan, recalls the time the US and Iran squared off during the 1998 World Cup game in Lyon, France.
The match was dubbed the most politically charged face-off in World Cup history because of the two countries’ soured geopolitical relationship.
So much so that Khamenei even threatened to pull out the team from the game because he did not want the players shaking hands with the US team, as protocol requires.
But when both teams were on the field, they posed for a photo, and the Iranian players gave their white flowers as a sign of peace. Shaheen remembers how Iran beat the US and expects the same to happen tonight.
But he wants everyone to treat this game as just a football match and not involve politics.
“Look at these people. They’re only here to enjoy football and nothing else. No politics, no religion, no race or colour. Only football!” he tells TRT World.
The United States and Iran severed formal diplomatic ties following the Tehran hostage crisis in 1979.
On the other hand, the US has slapped numerous sanctions on the country, contributing to Iran’s economic collapse.
However, Iran has been convulsed by a popular uprising since the death of Mahsa Amini, 22, in police custody after being arrested by the Iranian morality police.
The demonstrations have divided the country, and now both sides are trying to use the national soccer team to further their cause.
In Iran’s first match against England, the national team did not sing the national anthem, which was seen as a support for the protests.
The team did sing the national anthem before their second game against Wales.
For Alex Hirano, an IT engineer, it is impossible to separate politics from sports as the teams represent the entire country – including the governments, policies, and citizens.
“In an ideal world, it would be, but we are not there yet,” he tells TRT World. “I think the group stage of the WC is so stressful enough that political tensions do nothing but add even more unnecessary pressure.
“It can be used as a positive or negative force, and ultimately, it comes down to the individual, the team and coaches’ strategies and motivations,” Hirano adds.