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Opinion – Zeinab Ghasemi Tari: Iran v USA shows how far western countries can go to politicize the game


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On a summer night in France in 1998, the Iran team won its first World Cup match with a surprising 2-1 victory over the United States. In Tehran, there were huge celebrations: thousands of fans, from all walks of life, took to the streets to celebrate the national triumph.

The confrontation between Iran and the United States is inseparable from the context of relations between the countries. Iran was once a close ally and strategic pillar for the United States. When it grew rich on oil revenues, it became a market for American investments, weapons and products.

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In order to sustain its influence and power, the United States has exercised continual interference in Iran’s foreign and domestic affairs. The 1953 coup against a democratically elected Prime Minister, Mohammed Mossadegh, by CIA agents is known as the beginning of the clientelistic relationship between the countries.

Close ties were severed with the Islamic Revolution in 1979, when the Shah left Iran. Memories of the coup and concerns about a second coup when the US gave the Shah refuge led to the “embassy seizure”. On November 4, 1979, a group of students took over the US embassy in Tehran and demanded the Shah’s return for trial.

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It was what became known as the “hostage crisis”, which lasted 444 days and extinguished Iran-US diplomatic and consular relations. With Iraq’s invasion of Iran in 1980, Iranians saw the United States supporting Saddam Hussein and Washington leaning toward Iraq. The US government removed Iraq from the terrorist list, offered economic aid to Saddam, and assisted Iraq in the production and use of chemical weapons against Iranian soldiers and civilians.

Although sanctions against the Iranian nation have been in place for four decades, the unilateral “maximum pressure” was reinforced in November 2018, dramatically increasing the suffering. Like any other sector, sport in Iran also faces, directly or indirectly, repercussions from these sanctions: teams cannot easily buy equipment or register for international competitions, there are difficulties in arranging friendlies, and international sponsors are reluctant to cooperate.

Iranian athletes are regularly denied visas to attend events around the world, often in the US and UK. In June 2018, Nike broke with the Iran national team due to sanctions.

Recently, a 22-year-old woman died in police custody. Mahsa Amini was arrested for violating the Iranian dress code. Western-controlled Persian media immediately made accusations of police brutality, leading to protests and riots supported by Western-funded Iranian groups.

Footage of Mahsa and her father’s taped confessions raised serious questions about allegations of police brutality, but by then the demonstrations were in full swing and Mahsa Amini was no longer important to the protesters.

As the World Cup approached, the Iranian football team came under heavy attack from Western-owned Persian media and Western-funded groups based in Europe and North America. As many of the players lived abroad and played for foreign teams, several were personally bullied. This resulted in players not daring to sing the national anthem before the match against England, even though the thousands of Iranians in the stadium were chanting loudly. The team, demoralized, was heavily defeated on the field.

However, before the second game, against Wales, the team got together, regained confidence, sang the national anthem along with the crowd of Iranians in the stadium and won the match.

As the Iranians prepared for the match against the United States, the Western-backed opposition had lost whatever credibility it might have had among some Iranians because it wanted the team to lose. This unpatriotic move angered the Iranians and spurred them on to support the team even more.

But the US government and its affiliated agencies have begun their own psychological warfare against the Iranians. First, the American football federation insulted the Iranian flag. Afterwards, Western media started publishing fake news to demoralize the team.

The game against the United States was not one of Iran’s best, but it showed how far Western countries can go to politicize a match while always telling others to separate sport from politics.

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