Editor’s Note: Motez Bishara is a freelance journalist, author and PhD researcher in sports sociology at the University of Leicester. His latest book is “Athletes Who Rock: Stories of Sacrifice, Setbacks and Success in Sports, Music and Life.” The views expressed here are his own. Read more opinion on CNN.
The United States’ decisive World Cup match against Iran on Tuesday provided more than just the obvious clash of cultures between the longstanding political rivals.
The infectious trend of athlete activism that began stateside and crossed continents in recent years arrived awkwardly at the feet of the Iranian players in Qatar and was handled mostly like a soccer ball set on fire.
The US’s 1-0 victory on a Christian Pulisic first-half goal advanced them into the knockout stage of the tournament, while Iran’s exasperated players will return home after an emotional fortnight to see what sort of reception awaits them.
Playing in its sixth World Cup, Iran again failed to get past the group stage. But their challenges in Qatar were at least as daunting off the pitch.
In the run up to this tournament, Iran’s players had been placed in the no-win situation of trying to placate the Islamic leadership that runs the country and show solidarity with protesters suffering back home.
Since the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini under police custody in mid-September, security forces in Iran have killed hundreds of demonstrators, according to the Iran Human Rights NGO, while injuring and imprisoning thousands more.
Gifted striker Mehdi Taremi squirmed when asked about the protesters at a press conference. While Iran’s Portuguese manager, Carlos Queiroz, was questioned by a British journalist if he was comfortable working for a country that represses the rights of women.
Much has changed since Iran defeated the US in the 1998 World Cup. Back then, crowds of jubilant fans of Team Melli – its nickname denoting it as the people’s team – poured onto the streets, with women removing their headscarves alongside cheerful Revolutionary Guards.
This time around, sentiment among Iranians was intensely divided over whether to cheer for or root against the national team, seen by many as willing pawns of the government in its campaign against the civil unrest. The view was reinforced by the team’s photo opportunity with President Ebrahim Raisi days before its opening match against England, a listless 6-2 loss.
Much of that resentment stemmed from newfound expectations placed on athletes around the world to show solidarity with marginalized groups, a movement built upon the actions of American athletes over the past century that first peaked during the civil rights era of the 1960s.
That stage of athlete activism created hard lines among those who did and did not speak out against the US government. It’s easy to forget that Jackie Robinson, the icon who broke baseball’s color barrier, called Muhammad Ali unappreciative to his country for his refusal to be drafted into the Vietnam War.
As Arthur Ashe once said about his decision to focus on his game early in his tennis career, rather than address racial segregation in the sport: “In those days, if you were a moderate it was the same thing as being an Uncle Tom.”
Since the police killing of George Floyd in May 2020, athlete activism has been reawakened to those same heights on an unprecedented scale globally. Witness the scene before Friday’s showcase match between England and the US, when the entire England squad took a knee – an anti-racist gesture made famous by NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick in 2016 – as American players stood and watched.
Rarely has an international sporting event experienced so much controversy, with footballers speaking up for the LGBTQ+ community and migrant workers who built stadiums in Qatar under much-scrutinized conditions.
Yet words – or in the case of the German national team, gestures of silence – have not been enough for some, as similar with-us-or-against-us lines have been drawn from the days of Ali and Ashe.
Seven European team captains, including Harry Kane of England, were criticized for dropping plans to wear LGBTQ rainbow armbands despite facing yellow cards that would have put them at risk of a match ban in the tournament.
No team, however, faced greater risk for playing the role of activists than Iran, with US Soccer raising the tension this week by removing the emblem of the Islamic Republic from Iran’s flag on a now-deleted social media graphic in support of human rights for Iranian women. Iran’s soccer federation responded by petitioning FIFA to ban the Americans from the tournament.
US head coach Gregg Berhalter said he had no prior knowledge of the post and apologized, but one wonders whether US Soccer, who confirmed to CNN the gesture was deliberate but always intended to be temporary, were playing mischief to get into the heads of their opponents. (In the same press conference as Berhalter’s apology, clearly ruffled Iranian journalists asked him pointedly about US immigration policy and challenged US team captain Tyler Adams, who is Black, to address discrimination against Black people in America.)
But despite reports of dissension in their camp, Iran’s footballers began the tournament weighing in on their domestic strife when they refused to sing their national anthem before facing England, while Europe-based players Ehsan Hajsafi and Sardar Azmoun verbally backed the protesters.
Days later, Iranian-Kurdish player Voria Ghafouri became the latest of several current and former footballers arrested for “incitement against the regime” – a menacing harbinger for Team Melli.
What punishment could the players or their families face if they continued to provoke the Islamic Republic? One far worse than a yellow card, no doubt.
Instead, the Iranians came out mouthing their national anthem to jeers from the crowd before their second group match against Wales on Friday, as if to say, “We’re done being activists, let’s let our play do our talking for us.” And that it did. The lifting of that moral burden was reflected in Team Melli’s spirited play, resulting in a thrilling 2-0 victory, with both goals scored in 11 minutes of extra time.
Iranian players exulted on the field to an ecstatic crowd, but so nuanced are feelings towards Team Melli that even their celebrations were deemed as too excessive by some in light of those who were persecuted back home.
Iran’s plight in this World Cup should serve as a reminder that social protest does not necessarily align with the conditions of all athletes and should not always be expected of them.
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The old adage in sports is that winning cures all. On Tuesday, however, the Iranians looked spent, and despite needing only a draw against the US to advance, struggled to pose a threat until the dying minutes of the match.
Perhaps they will have better luck in four years’ time when the World Cup is hosted in the United States, Canada and Mexico. Should Iran qualify, tough questions will no doubt be placed on their players once again.