Iran’s World Cup football team is tougher to hate this year.
I want to hate them, really I do. The players wearing Iran’s uniform represent a country that wants to eradicate my own, is actively trying via various proxies to kidnap and kill my countrymen, and denies that the Nazis murdered my grandparents.
I had no problem reviling Iran’s athletes at the last Olympics, hoping that their Greco-Roman wrestler would get pinned, that their judoka would end up on the short end of an ippon, and that their boxer would suffer a TKO.
But this time – at the World Cup in Qatar – it’s different.
Because last Monday, before Iran’s first match against England – one they lost by a walloping 6-2 – the team’s players pointedly refused to sing the Iranian national anthem in an apparent show of solidarity with the anti-government protesters in their country.
With that gesture they differentiated themselves from their government, thereby blunting my enmity. As Israel’s leaders say repeatedly, and as reflected by the lack of hostility in my gut toward this particular team, our beef is not with the Iranian people, but rather with the ayatollahs and their fellow travelers who run the country.
The Iranian footballers’ silent protest was a big deal, a significant act of political courage.
Iran is not America, where NFL players who took a knee during the pre-game national anthem during the height of the Black Lives Matter protests a couple of years ago might have been booed by some, and cheered by others, but were left alone by the government. In Iran, public acts of protest like these abroad are dealt with severely.
After Iranian rock climber Elnaz Rekabi competed without wearing the mandatory head scarf at an international competition in South Korea in October, there were reports that she would be jailed upon return home. Protesters, however, greeted her return to Iran with a hero’s reception, even though she told state media – apparently under duress – that it was “unintentional” and that the head scarf fell off accidentally.
Perhaps the Iranian football team felt that if they all pointedly refused to sing the Iranian national hymn – something highlighted around the world – they would not face punishment because the Iranian government could not possibly jail or punish the entire national squad.
Or could they?
The players’ decision on Friday before their match with Wales to reverse course and this time mouth the words to the anthem – an anthem jeered by many Iranian fans in the crowd – showed that maybe they were told that they would be punished and that they better step back into line.
Striker Mehdi Taremi said at a press conference after the match that they were not under any pressure to sing, but that sounded about as genuine as Rekabi’s claim that her hijab accidentally fell off.
Nevertheless, the initial act of protest by the Iranian players has taken some of the passion out of rooting for Iranians to make a poor showing in the soccer extravaganza.
Some of the passion, but not all of it.
As the Iranians face off against the Americans on Tuesday – a match with a great geopolitical storyline – some are comparing this match with the last time the two sides met in World Cup play, in 1998 in France.
A Time magazine piece this week noted that Iranian officials went into the team’s locker room at halftime of that match and told the players that if they lost, they would not be welcome back to Iran, and that their relatives would not be able to leave.
Iran won 2-1.
Time quoted the US coach at the time, Steve Sampson, as saying, “We were asked by FIFA, by US Soccer, by the organizing committee in France, to make it about football and not about politics. And I went along with that. In hindsight, I would have made it about politics. A coach’s job is to use any and every tool available to him to prepare his team.”
“We were asked by FIFA, by US Soccer, by the organizing committee in France, to make it about football and not about politics. And I went along with that. In hindsight, I would have made it about politics. A coach’s job is to use any and every tool available to him to prepare his team.”Steve Sampson
Sampson said that if he could do it again, he would have used the geopolitical rivalry to motivate his players, just as the Iranians did.
“So many Americans have been hurt so dramatically by the Iranian regime,” said Sampson. “We could have played for them.”
By contrast, Gregg Berhalter – the current head coach of the US team – told the Voice of America that geopolitics would not be a factor in Tuesday’s game, one that the US needs to win or face disqualification.
“I envision the game being hotly contested for the fact that both teams want to advance to the next round – not because of politics or because of relations between our countries. We’re soccer players, and we’re going to compete and they’re going to compete, and that’s it,” he said, sounding rather naive.
“I envision the game being hotly contested for the fact that both teams want to advance to the next round – not because of politics or because of relations between our countries. We’re soccer players, and we’re going to compete and they’re going to compete, and that’s it.”Gregg Berhalter
When geopolitical rivals and enemy countries meet in international sporting events, it’s rarely – as Berhalter would have one believe – just about sport. Ask the Hungarians, who played for the country’s pride in a water polo match against the Soviet Union that turned bloody in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics that took place just a month after the Soviets subdued Hungary’s democratic uprising. Or ask the American “miracle on ice” hockey team that beat the Soviet Union’s hockey powerhouse in the 1980 Olympics at the height of the Cold War.
Or ask the Iranian athletes who in international competition after international competition are forced to forfeit, rather than face off against Israelis. If it was “just about the sport,” they would be able to compete, even against a “Zionist” opponent.
But it’s not just about the sport or competing. If Iran wins, the government in Tehran will somehow use the victory to claim mastery over the “Great Satan,” or try to unite the divided country and divert attention from the protests in the country that they are trying – as yet unsuccessfully – to put down through brutal means.
And just as it is not only about the sport for the athletes or their coaches or many of the countries involved, it is also not only about sports for the spectators. If it was, many Israelis hoping intensely for an American victory might otherwise be pulling for the apparent underdog in Tuesday’s match. This is not the case, however, when the underdog is an Iranian team, even one that courageously stood up – at least one time – in solidarity with the freedom-fighting protesters in their own country.
It might be tougher to hate the Iranian team this year, but it’s still not hard – because of geopolitical and Jewish reasons – to want to see them go down to a stinging defeat at the hands of the US.