Supporters of longtime foes United States and Iran on Tuesday flocked to a World Cup showdown in Qatar which some fans said was overshadowed by protests raging back in Iran and by years of enmity between the two countries.
The contest between the two nations, who severed ties more than 40 years ago, was being held with increased security to prevent a flare-up over the unrest that has gripped Iran since the death in custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini on Sept. 16.
In a show of solidarity ahead of the match, which starts at 1900 GMT, the U.S. Soccer Federation temporarily displayed Iran’s national flag without the emblem of the Islamic Republic, leading Tehran to complain to FIFA, according to state media.
Qatar, which has strong ties with Washington and friendly relations with Tehran, has staked its reputation on delivering a smooth World Cup, beefing up security at Iran games and banning some items deemed inflammatory, like Iran’s pre-revolution flag.
Iran’s top nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani arrived in Doha on Tuesday on an invitation from Qatar, state news agency IRNA reported without mentioning if he would attend the match.
U.S.-Iranian tensions have worsened since 2018 when then-President Donald Trump abandoned Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers. Efforts to salvage the pact under President Joe Biden’s administration have stalled.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, speaking in Romania, played down any link between the match and political tensions and said he hoped the game would “speak for itself”, adding that he would be watching and cheering on his country.
Still, politics have spilled into the World Cup, the first to be held in a Middle East country.
Some fans gathering outside Al Thumama Stadium ahead of the match sought to highlight the protests which authorities in Iran have tried for more than two months to quell.
“Everybody should know about this. We don’t have voice in Iran,” said an Iranian living in the United States who gave his name only as Sam.
He raised his shirt to show a T-shirt underneath with the protesters’s slogan: “Woman, Life, Freedom”.
At Iran’s match against Wales on Friday, security denied entry to fans carrying Iran’s pre-revolution flag and T-shirts with protest slogans.
Another fan, who would not give his name, said he had mixed feelings about the game, saying the Iran players “don’t represent (the) national team. They represent (the) national government’s interests”.
Steve Garcia, from Phoenix, Arizona, said the United States and Iran had their differences but could come together in sport.
“I know there’s a lot of politics going on, but the way I look at it like – hey, we’re here to have a common bond, which is the sport of football, soccer,” he said.
Security teams on Friday, when Iran beat Wales, broke up small number of altercations between Iranian fans outside the stadium, a Qatari official said.
Ahead of Tuesday’s match, some Iranians said they feared further run-ins with stadium security or clashes with pro-government fans over the raging protests back home.
The Qatar official, when asked about security concerns and complaints about restrictions, said authorities would ensure all matches are “safe and welcoming for all spectators”.
Items that “could increase tensions and risk the safety of fans” would not be permitted at stadiums, the official said.
Gulf Arab monarchies, including Qatar, do not tolerate domestic dissent and protests are rare in the region.
Under pressure to publicly support protesters at home, the Iran team declined to sing the national anthem in their first game against England, which they lost 6-2. But they sang it, more or less, ahead of their second match, a 2-0 win over Wales.
After Friday’s victory an Iranian fan in a T-shirt with an image of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Qassem Soleimani – a senior Iranian general killed by a U.S. drone strike in 2020 – chanted over fans voicing support for protesters.
The unrest in Iran poses one of the boldest challenges to the theocracy since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The United States has imposed sanctions on Iranian officials over the crackdown on protesters.
Washington and Tehran severed formal relations in 1980 after the revolution. When their soccer teams clashed in the 1998 World Cup, Iran emerged with a 2-1 victory.