Rarely is an international sporting contest simply about what happens in the match.
If teams play regularly enough – in competitions or tournaments – the encounters can be about simply trying to do the best on the field and emerge the winner.
Oftentimes, however, especially if the teams do not compete regularly, the faceoffs can be weighted with history, and frequently a history of difficulty. India and Pakistan have used their international cricketing contests to carry out “sports diplomacy”, but sometimes such games trigger violence, occasionally in far away in places such as the United Kingdom between rival supporters.
Similarly, during the 2018 Winter Olympics, the two Koreas, led by South Korean president Moon Jae-in, and Kim Jong-Un’s younger sister Kim Yo Jong, appeared to make real progress, and the two countries competed as a single “Korea” in the ice hockey competition.
What then to make of the soccer showdown between the United States and Iran at the World Cup, a game the US needs to win to progress in the tournament. A draw would knock out the US, and leave Iran relying on Wales not beating England.
Tuesday’s contest in Qatar is not the first time the two countries that cut diplomatic relations in 1980 after the Iranian Revolution, have played each other at football.
In June 1998, the US lost 2-1 to Iran in Lyon during the World Cup hosted by France, a game that several involved said broke down prejudices and helped build a new understanding.
Two years later, during a friendly held in Pasadena, California, the two sides drew 1-1.
“Sports are also an opportunity for overcoming adversity and diplomatic impasses. In light of the ongoing protests in support of women and human rights in Iran, which has garnered global attention, I anticipate the players and fans on both sides will find more common ground than animosity,” Profeesor Firoozeh Kashani-Sabet of the University of Pennsylvania tells The Independent.
“The players, like other prominent athletes, are under the microscope, and their acts of civil disobedience put them at risk with the security apparatuses of the Islamic Republic. However, they are also citizens of a country in turmoil and took the decision to express support for the social protests in Iran, which many appreciated.”
This week’s contest is taking place at a time of particularly fraught relations between the US and Iran, who were among the signatories to a 2015 nuclear deal aimed at halting any nuclear weapons ambitions Tehran may have, in exchange for the lifting of sanctions and a partial return to the international arena.
Donald Trump pulled the US out the deal in 2018, and reimposed crippling economic sanctions, one of the factors in further pushing Tehran into the orbit of Vladimir Putin, as now he continues his invasion of Ukraine, reportedly equipped with Iranian drones.
World Cup: Southgate says both England and Wales are ‘under pressure’
There’s more. The game is happening while widespread protests are happening in Iran, triggered by the death of a young Kurdish woman, Mahsa Amini, who died after being taken into custody by Iran’s morality police after being stropped for apparently not wearing a hijab.
While the protesters have received international admiration – and their efforts praised by members of Iran’s team earlier this month – the Iranian government and its supporters have accused the West of trying to orchestrate the protests.
Under Trump, the US’s policy towards Iran was to undermine the government and try and force change. Biden has been a little less blatant about Washington’s desires, but was probably speaking too honestly than his aides would have liked when he told a midterm campaign stop: “Don’t worry, we’re gonna free Iran. They’re gonna free themselves pretty soon.”
Supporters of the Iranian government, among them academics such as Seyed Mohammad Marandi, a professor at Tehran University in Iran, has been downplaying the scale of the protests, while highlighting incidents in which members of the security forces have reportedly been killed.
“As expected, despite murdering over 60 policemen, western backed riots/terror have failed,” tweeted Mr Marandi, who do not immediately respond to inquiries ahead of the game.
“Western elites believe their own propaganda about Iran and miscalculate.”
While many in the West are aware of the 1979 revolution that brought to power an Islamist government headed by the previously exiled religious leader Ayatollah Khomeini, and the taking hostage of 52 US diplomats at the American Embassy in Tehran, less is talked about the events leading up to this.
Experts say, critical to such an understanding was the 1953 coup by the US and UK, which installed the pro-western monarch, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and the overthrow of the democratically elected prime minister Mohammad Mosaddeg.
Formal diplomatic ties were cut in April 1980. Since then, relations between the two nations have continued largely unchanged, though there have been definite thaws after the election in Iran of reformers such as Mohammad Khatami, first elected in 1997, and Hassan Rouhani, whose foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif played a major role in securing the 2016 nuclear deal.
Alongside this, the rhetoric from other leaders has not stopped. In 2002, for instance, George W Bush, referred to Iran as part of a perceived “axis of evil” in his first State of the Union address in 2002.
For Iran’s part, Ayatollah Khamenei often refers to the “US regime” and has said the Iranians will keep chanting “Death to America as long as the United States remains evil”.
Negar Mortazavi, an Iranian-American journalist and political analyst remembers being a teenager in Tehran when Iran beat the US in 1998.
She says everyone poured onto the streets as if they had won the entire tournament.
“Just winning the game in the cup, and having that game and the score against the US was such a historic moment,” she says, speaking from Washington DC.
“This game will be very significant. It’s being very closely watched. It’s also the most politically charged game between the two sides, and if Iran does win, it will also become very historic because this will be a second win against the US.”
She adds: “And it could also potentially help them qualify for the next round, which again, would be a first for Iran in world cup history, and it will be unprecedented.”
Mortazavi says a number of players have apparently been under pressure, and toned down the outspoken support for the protesters back in Iran, they had voiced ahead of the game with England.
She believes even though there’s tension between the two nations, the players have shown they intend to concentrate on the match. She says there is a precedence for this, with wrestlers from Iran and the US developing genuine cameraderie over the years, even as tensions remained high between their respective governments.
“We see them really putting their best into it and just focusing on the game,” she adds.
In the run up Tuesday’s game, there had been a little gamesmanship of sorts, or a genuine insult depending on how you saw it, when it emerged the US soccer federation had briefly displayed Iran’s national flag on social media without the emblem of the Islamic Republic.
It said the move had been taken to support the protesters, but Iran responded by saying it appeared the US was “removing the symbol of Allah” from the Iranian flag.
Iran’s ISNA news agency quoted Safiollah Fagahanpour, an adviser to the Iranian Football Federation, saying the “measures taken regarding the Islamic Republic of Iran flag are against the law” of FIFA competitions. “They must be held responsible,” Fagahanpour said.
“Obviously they want to affect Iran’s performance against the US by doing this.”
On Monday, the US team manager, Gregg Berhalter, apologised for the episode.
“The players and the staff knew nothing about what was being posted,” Berhalter said during a press conference.
“Sometimes things are out of our control. We believe that it’s going to be a match that the result will depend on who puts more effort in, who executes better on the field.”
He added: “And we’re not focused on those outside things. All we can do on our behalf is apologise on behalf of the players and the staff, but it’s not something that we are part of.”