When the U.S. Men’s soccer team faces off against Iran at the World Cup on Tuesday at 2 p.m., the stakes will be high both athletically and politically. The U.S. team needs a win to advance to the Round of 16 for the fifth time in its history; the Iranian team would make it out of the Group Stage for the first time ever if it wins, and could conceivably do so with a draw as well. If they lose, Iran’s players would return to a country that since September has seen the biggest and most widespread protests since at least 2009, and perhaps in the history of the country’s 43-year-old theocracy. A rattled regime has used violence to quell persistent uprisings all over the country, and soccer players haven’t been exempt from punishment. With all this unfolding in the background, Iran will be going up against its foremost geopolitical foe on the biggest stage in sports.
Suffice it to say there’s a lot on the line here. Below, a list of the most compelling subplots of a much-anticipated showdown:
The Iranian Team vs. the Iranian Regime
Before Iran’s first World Cup match against England, the team’s players sent a powerful message of solidarity with their country’s protesters by opting not to sing the Iranian national anthem, as some other national teams had done amid the nationwide demonstrations. Before the match, Iran’s team captain, Ehsan Hajsafi, paid tribute to a ten-year-old boy who was allegedly killed by Iranian security forces and expressed his condolences for the grieving families of Iran. The Iranian players did sing the anthem before their second match (without any apparent enthusiasm).
But although the team may have seemed anti-regime to the casual fan, it does not necessarily carry that reputation within Iran or among the country’s large diaspora. Before the World Cup, many Iranians criticized the players for meeting with the country’s ultraconservative president, Ebrahim Raisi, and the regime has championed the team as a point of nationalist pride. As a result, some Iranians are actively rooting against their own team.
Meanwhile, Voria Ghafouri, a prominent Iranian Kurdish player who didn’t make the team — many believe because of his outspoken criticism of Iran’s government — was arrested last week for “incitement against the regime,” among other charges. With that reminder of the consequences for dissent fresh in their minds, the Iranian players may not want to rock the boat any further on Tuesday.
The U.S. Team vs. the Iranian Regime
It’s not like Tuesday’s game needed more drama, but over the weekend, the United States Soccer Federation added another dose. The organization posted images of the Group B standings to Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook that conspicuously removed the symbol of the Islamic Republic from Iran’s flag, keeping just its green, white, and red colors.
The correct flag was restored in the image hours later amid online pushback. In a statement, the USSF explained that it had made the temporary change to show “support for the women in Iran fighting for basic human rights.” Iran’s protests kicked off after 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died in police custody after being detained for not wearing a hijab.
In response, Iran called for the U.S. to be banned from the World Cup, which they must have figured was worth a shot.
The flag imbroglio followed xenophobic comments made by former U.S. team coach and German soccer star Jurgen Klinsmann on Friday during a BBC broadcast. Klinsmann said that Iran’s team played dirty and that the country’s “culture” was to blame for its tactics on the field, specifically calling out coach Carlos Queiroz, who is from Portugal. The Iranian Soccer Federation and Queiroz reacted angrily, with Queiroz calling Klinsmann’s comments “a typical prejudiced judgment of superiority.”
The U.S. Government vs. the Iranian Regime
The long history of conflict and intrigue between the two countries needs no summary here, but recently, hopes of even a dim revival of U.S.-Iran relations have faded. For a time, it looked as if negotiators from the Biden administration and its Iranian counterparts might hammer out a new version of the landmark nuclear deal that Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from in 2018. But already complex negotiations have been complicated further by American support of the protest movement in Iran (which Iran has accused the U.S. of inciting) and by Iran’s military support of Russia’s war in Ukraine. For now, the deal, and any productive dialogue between the two countries, seems all but dead.
It’s unlikely that events on the field Tuesday will alter this troubled dynamic one way or another, but an Iranian win might bolster national pride — and refocus attention on a historical enemy — at a moment when an embattled and repressive government is trying to change the subject. Whether the protesters fighting for their rights care much about a soccer match, though, is unclear.
The Iranian Regime (and Qatar) vs. Iranian Fans
Anti-regime Iranian fans have been trying to make their presence felt at the country’s games. But Qatar, the authoritarian monarchy hosting the Cup, is an Iranian ally, and it’s in the country’s interest to quell protesters’ dissent. Activists carrying Iran’s pre-revolution flag and wearing T-shirts with the slogans supporting the protests have been escorted out of games in Qatar by security (though it’s not just Iranians who have had problems). Some activists have also faced harassment by pro-regime fans.
But it was impossible to stop some Iranian fans from booing during the national anthem before the game against England (and booing Iranian players for singing it against Wales). And on Monday, a fan holding a rainbow flag ran onto the field during a match between Portugal and Uruguay, wearing a shirt that read “Respect For Iranian Women.”
On Tuesday, things could get heated not only on the field, but in the stands.
The U.S. Team vs. the Iranian Team
Okay, this one is more a plot than a subplot — there’s an actual soccer game to be played on Tuesday. The U.S. has had a very respectable World Cup so far, drawing 1-1 with Wales (in a game they probably should have won) and, considerably more impressively, drawing 0-0 against England, outplaying one of the World Cup favorites for the bulk of more than 90 minutes.
Iran began its run with a 6-2 drubbing at the hands of England, rebounding with a decisive 2-0 victory over Wales. The team has played in five previous World Cups and has never advanced past the group stage, though it did beat the U.S. in 1998, after which Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (who has recently been dealing with health issues) said that “the strong and arrogant opponent felt the bitter taste of defeat.” A victory on Tuesday would eclipse that win as a signature moment in Iranian sports history, albeit at one of the country’s most fraught periods.
This post has been updated.