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Qatar World Cup 2022: US defeat Iran 1-0 in match overshadowed by political tension

Highly anticipated game took place under increased security to prevent a flare-up over anti-government protests in Iran
Iran's goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand reacts at the end of the match between Iran and the USA at the Al-Thumama Stadium in Doha on 29 November 2022 (AFP)

The United States triumphed on the pitch over longtime political adversary Iran on Tuesday in a World Cup match overshadowed by protests raging in Iran and laced with decades of tension between the two countries.

In sporting terms, the 1-0 win for the US after a first half goal by Christian Pulisic means they progress to the knockout stage, while Iran are out of the competition.

Off-the-field issues between the two nations included the collapse of nuclear talks, US sanctions, Iran's support for Russia in the Ukraine war, and the ongoing protests in Iran.

On Saturday, the United States Soccer Federation briefly used an altered flag of Iran in a social media post, angering Tehran, which called for the US team's expulsion from the tournament.

US coach Gregg Berhalter apologised to Iran on Monday over the incident, insisting that his players and staff had no idea that the federation had taken the decision to post the doctored image with the emblem of the Islamic Republic removed.

On Friday, the former US team coach Jurgen Klinsmann criticised Iranian football culture after Iran defeated Wales 2-0, saying fouls and confronting officials were part of their game.

World Cup 1998: When Iran played the US in 'the mother of all games'
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Tuesday's game took place under increased security to prevent a flare-up over the anti-government protests across Iran since the death in custody of 22-year-old Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini on 16 September.

Extra security personnel, some mounted on horseback, patrolled outside the Al Thumama Stadium in Doha before the match while guards at the perimeter made Iranians unfurl their flags before entering.

Police were stationed throughout the stadium alongside regular security guards. Some carried batons.

Early in the second half, a group of fans briefly held up letters spelling Amini's name, to applause from Iranian supporters around them. Security personnel took their signs but allowed them to remain in their seats.

Just hours before the game, Iran released two former members of its international football team who had been arrested on charges related to the protests.

Right-back Voria Ghafouri was arrested last week after being accused of tarnishing “the reputation of the national team and spreading propaganda against the state,” while retired goalkeeper Parviz Boroumand was arrested nearly two weeks ago on charges of participating in rallies in Tehran.

Both the men were released by the judiciary on bail, according to state-linked media.

'We learn from history'

Fans of both sides had taken to social media ahead of the match to cheer on their teams, many hoping to put politics aside and focus on football.

Alexi Lalas, a former player for the US team, said that the American side should look to the previous match between the two sides at the 1998 World Cup, when Iran won 2-0.

The match was similarly plagued with off-field tensions, but the two teams came together in a move that showed the power of peace.

Lalas, however, says during the 1998 match, it was politics that helped give Iran an advantage over the US.

"We made the mistake of underestimating how much the historically contentious relationship between our countries motivated, fuelled, and informed Iran's performance. It was more than a game to them. Here's hoping we learn from history," Lalas tweeted.

In a video that has since gone viral with five million views on Twitter, US player and team captain Tyler Adams responded to a question from an Iranian reporter, who accused Adams of speaking out in support of the Iranian people but mispronouncing the name of the country.

The reporter then went on to ask how the player could criticise Iran for the government's crackdown on the Amini protest movement while the US continues to discriminate against minority communities.

"My apologies on the mispronunciation of your country," Adams said.

"In the US, we're continuing to make progress every day... It's a process, as long as you see progress, that's the most important thing."

'Gesture of friendship'

The game posed a challenge for many in the Iranian diaspora, who have long supported Team Melli in international tournaments.

As the protests continue against the Iranian government, many fans have this year decided to root against Iran's team, saying they are not doing enough in solidarity with the protests.

The Iran team had refused to sing the national anthem in their first game of the tournament, but were seen reluctantly mumbling it during their second match.

Esfandyar Batmanghelidj, an Iranian business diplomacy expert and the founder of Bourse & Bazaar, also remembered the 1998 match, but had a different view of the game.

"I can't help but feel sad that 24 years later, I'm once again hoping that the two teams will join in a gesture of friendship before tomorrow's game, showing us that the US and Iran won't be enemies forever," he said on Twitter.

Many fans attending the World Cup have been putting politics aside and coming together for photos - even dance competitions.

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