The win means the U.S. team will advance to Round of 16 against the Netherlands this weekend. But the action on the field was indicative of much more than advancing in the World Cup in Doha, Qatar: The fight for basic human rights was also in play.
On the field, the U.S. team dominated most of the first half as forward Christian Pulisic scored in the 38th minute following a cross from Weston McKennie to Sergino Dest, who headed the ball to Pulisic for the late-half goal.
The second half was more contentious, but saw neither side score a goal. The win for the U.S. lands the team in Group B’s second place, behind England, which defeated Wales 3-0 on Tuesday. Gregg Berhalter’s players will now face the Netherlands on Saturday.
Off the pitch, tensions also mounted. Recent unrest in Iran has sparked after the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman who died while in the custody of the country’s morality police for allegedly not wearing a hijab in accordance with the country’s strict dress code. More than 400 protesters have been killed in the two months following her death.
In an effort to show solidarity with the protestors, the Iranian national team refused to sing its national anthem prior to its first World Cup match against England. Against USMNT and last week against Wales, the players were captured singing along after CNN reported that a source said members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp had allegedly met with the players and threatened their families with imprisonment, “violence, and torture” if they didn’t “behave.”
The U.S. Soccer Federation also showed solidarity for protestors when it temporarily displayed Iran’s national flag sans the emblem of the Islamic Republic on social media Saturday. On Sunday, Iran state media called for the United States to be immediately kicked out of the World Cup and suspended for 10 games for displaying a “distorted image” of Iran’s flag. The following day, a protestor invaded the field at the Portugal vs. Uruguay match while wearing a shirt that read “Respect Iranian Women.”
U.S. Soccer told CNN that its depiction of the Iranian flag without the emblem “was a one-time graphic” and that it briefly changed it to show “support for the women in Iran fighting for basic human rights,” and did so 24 hours before returning to the original flag in a post on Sunday.
The recent controversy is emblematic of a long history of political tensions between the two countries — including the 1979 U.S. embassy takeover and 444-day hostage crisis that ensued during the Iranian Revolution — with it spilling onto the pitch. The last time the two teams faced one another was at the 1998 tournament in Lyon, France, where Iran won 2-1. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei commended the Iranian team at the time, saying, “the strong and arrogant opponent felt the bitter taste of defeat,” as the Associated Press reports.
But the political climate was also different, with Iran’s then-president, Mohammad Khatami, looking to improve relations with the West via “reformist” policies.
Now, 24 years later, Khamenei protégé Ebrahim Raisi is president. The hard-liner took part in the 1988 execution of thousands of political prisoners following the Iran-Iraq war. Tehran is now enriching uranium to 60 percent purity, with experts sounding the alarm that the Islamic Republic has enough to make at least one nuclear bomb. There is also Russia’s deployment of Iranian-made drones used to strike Ukrainian civilian areas.
Suffice to say, the matchup was a clash of might along with ideals, both on and off the field, and the tensions look only to escalate.