Why Iranian soccer fans are cheering for US team

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Mateo Farzaneh remembers with great fondness the last time Iran played the U.S. in a World Cup match. It was 1998 and he was working as a nurse, but he was so fixated on the game that he gave his patients to co-workers so he could watch the team from his homeland beat the U.S. in a 2-1 upset.

“I was very, very happy,” he recalled. “That was a magical moment. … There’s not much opportunity we get to be proud of being Iranians.”

Times change. Farzaneh is now a history professor at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago, and if any expats will be rooting for Iran on Tuesday when it once again plays the U.S. in a match that could determine which nation will advance in the tournament, they’re keeping quiet about it.

That’s because of the Iranian regime’s violent crackdown on protests that erupted after the Sept. 16 death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish woman, in the custody of the country’s morality police. At least 426 people have been killed during the unrest and more than 17,400 arrested, according to the group Human Rights Activists in Iran.

The soccer team, once viewed as a representation of the people, is now widely seen as another tool of the ruling clerics, especially after the players posed for a pre-World Cup photo with hard-line Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, considered the architect of the repression.

Their decision to remain silent during the national anthem before their first game, which they lost to England 6-2, failed to win much respect from those hoping for change in the country.

A woman stands with her face painted in memory of Mahsa Amini, a woman who died while in police custody in Iran at the age of 22, prior to the World Cup group B soccer match between Wales and Iran, at the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium in Al Rayyan, Qatar, on Nov. 25, 2022.

“From the bottom of our hearts, we’re all hoping the U.S. wins the game by at least six goals,” said Fateh Khalandi, an Iranian Kurd who lives in Schaumburg. “We were begging them to drop the World Cup so the whole wide world can hear our voices.”

Farzaneh said Iranians have lived in the Chicago area since it hosted the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, and many arrived after the Islamic revolution in the late 1970s. Many have come to study, earning medical degrees and doctorates, and some have done well in real estate and other business ventures, he said.

Though Iranians have no signature ethnic neighborhood, Farzaneh said big soccer matches have always offered a chance for the community to come together. This time, though, there’s a great deal of social pressure to shun the games.

“(Protesters and their allies) want everyone to join them,” he said. “Everything that’s connected with the state they want to boycott, and that includes the national team. That puts Iranians in a very difficult position. I know so many people, including nephews, who bought tickets (to the games in Qatar) but canceled.”

Negin Jahangiri and her husband Saeed Kamalinia, who grew up in Iran before moving to Chicago, are veteran travelers to major soccer tournaments and kept their plans to go to Qatar. But together with other Iranians, they made a statement during the England game, wearing T-shirts with the slogan “Women Life Freedom,” writing “Mahsa Amini” on their arms and painting bloody red tears on their cheeks.

They described a bizarre scene at the stadium in which other fans, evidently under the sway of the regime, tattled to security guards when fellow Iranians brought in pre-revolutionary flags, which have become a symbol of protest. Some also pounded drums in an apparent attempt to drown out chants of dissent.

Fateh Khalandi, an Iranian Kurd who now lives in Schaumburg, on Nov. 25, 2022. Khalandi sees the Iran's World Cup team as an instrument of the repressive regime and hopes it will be defeated by the U.S. in Tuesday's game.

Such sabotage, however, appeared to be in vain after the world media took note of the boos cascading out of the stands during Iran’s national anthem.

“Yesterday’s events were not about football at all for us,” Jahangiri said in a video call after the game. “It was about echoing the voice of Iranian people. Anything that satisfies the Iranian regime, we’re against that. Including football.”

Back in the States, Matty Shirani, who lives in Des Plaines, watched the Iran-England game on TV. She wasn’t impressed by the players’ gesture during the national anthem, either, though she understood the lack of more forceful action.

“They looked like a group of people who are forced to obey the rules of (Supreme Leader) Ayatollah Khamenei,” she said. “That’s something we didn’t expect to see. We wanted them to be the voice of people, not to betray them.”

Some in Iran’s soccer establishment have been explicit with their discontent and suffered for it. State-linked media reported Thursday that Voria Ghafouri, a former national team member known for criticizing the country’s authorities, had been arrested for “insulting the national soccer team and propagandizing against the government.”

Iran’s game Friday saw the conflict intensify. This time the players did sing along with the anthem, and after the team’s unexpected 2-0 victory over Wales, jubilant government supporters reportedly harassed demonstrators outside the stadium.

Jahangiri said Qatari security detained her and her husband without explanation when they tried to find a fellow Iranian fan who had been taken away by authorities. They were finally released after more than four hours, she said.

Such acrimony has put a fog of sorrow over what is normally a celebration. Shirani said videos coming out of Iran show people expressing astonishment that the government could make them root against their beloved national team. Farzaneh said he knew of no local watch parties for Iran games, though he guessed some fans are lying low for fear of reproach.

Ahmad Sadri, Gorter professor of Islamic world studies at Lake Forest College, said that schism is another tragic aspect of Iran’s participation in the World Cup, turning once-passionate fans into outright foes of the team. It’s a far cry from the days when just qualifying for the tournament could send the whole country into a frenzy, he said.

A good performance this year will be seen as a victory for the regime and a poor one will be viewed as an embarrassment, he said. Some are making jokes about England’s six goals being the same as the number of years President Raisi, frequently mocked as uneducated, spent in school.

“It has been politicized in the worst meaning of the word,” he said. “There is no sportsmanship, there is no spirit of supporting a friendly game. The whole thing is shot to hell. It’s a very sad day for Iranians in sports.”

The Associated Press contributed.

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Twitter @JohnKeilman



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