Doha, Qatar – Political tensions have been running high between the United States and Iran in the past more than half a centurybut for some football fans set to watch the two nations go head-to-head at the World Cup, the beautiful match goes beyond politics.
Shervin Sharifi, 31-year-old Iranian-American, is an avid soccer fan who collects soccer jerseys as a hobby. His collection to date includes 107 shirts, ranging from various clubs to national teams. About 40 to 45 of them belong to the Iranian national team alone.
“You could say I’m an addict. This is my life. This is why I live,” Sharifi told Al Jazeera, his voice hoarse after three days of cheering for matches.
He and his friends traveled from Dallas, Texas, to support “Team Melli,” the Iranian national team, including Tuesday’s game between the United States and Iran, where the stakes couldn’t be higher. .
After Iran beat Wales 2-0 and 0-0 draw between USA and UKThe Americans need to win tonight’s match to advance to the knockout stages of the tournament, while the Iranians may only need a draw. Only one of them can pass from Group B. This will be the second time the two teams have faced off at a World Cup.
“I can assure you of this – the Iranian players have more passion for this game because they don’t just play for themselves to be successful; they have 80 million people to make happy at home. It’s a lot of burden on your shoulders,” he told Al Jazeera as he stood at Doha’s Souq Waqif market.
Sharifi said that he realized that the game did not just represent football for many people and had protest in the game and other places.
“I do not say [the USA team] not passion, but [it’s been] 43 years of this kind of strangulation on a country,” he said, referring to the Islamic Republic’s rise to power after the 1979 Iranian Revolution.
“When [the Iranian team] step on that field, they don’t just play for one game. They are playing for change.”
For Sharifi, the match between the US and Iran has special meaning because he first fell in love with football when the two teams faced off in the 1998 World Cup match in Lyon, France. He remembers watching Iran beat the US team 2-1 when he was 7 years old with his father, an immigrant from Iran with his mother.
That match has been described as the most politically charged match in World Cup history due to the hostile geopolitical relationship between the two nations.
Sharifi said his father “cares more” [about] The political side of the football game, and that’s what excites me. But it doesn’t matter to me. I was very young. All I saw were 11 men on the pitch, and that stunned me.”
Before the 1998 game, tensions couldn’t be higher. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei even threatened to pull the team out of the game because he didn’t want the players to shake hands with the American team according to protocol.
But the players took a different approach. Both teams posed for an impromptu photo together on the field — an iconic moment — and the Iranian players presented bouquets of white flowers to their opponents as a symbol of peace.
“Looking back to 1998, it was a time of unification that brought Iran and the United States together,” Sharifi said.
A lot has changed since that World Cup match, and before Tuesday’s game, the focus of tension in Iran was beyond concern with the US.
For weeks, protests have been going on in Iran over the death while in police custody of a 22-year-old man. Mahsa Aminiwho was arrested in September for “inappropriate attire”.
Children were among the More than a dozen people died this month in a wave of protests.
In Iran’s first game against England, the team did not sing the national anthem, which was interpreted as a gesture of support for the protests.
In the second match against Wales, the team sang the national anthem but cautiouslyas Maziar Motamedi of Al Jazeera reported.
“Team Melli was a way for us to highlight this issue… the moment the Iranian national team wasn’t singing the national anthem, people were on the news about it,” said Sharifi.
Vignesh Ram, 37, an American-Canadian from the San Francisco Bay Area, is in Qatar with his father to cheer for the US team.
Ram believes that football can be a unifying force and does not focus on the political tensions between the two countries.
“For American football fans, traveling internationally offers the opportunity to get more perspective,” he said. “It brings people together in a way that really makes sense, and [US] the team has never been great, so there will be less to lose. There is less national pride on the line.
“I really think it’s a better opportunity to forge stronger relationships.”
Ram sees these games as an opportunity to understand what non-US people are going through on a daily basis.
“Football reminds us that countries are not their governments, they are in fact their people,” he said. “I think we often see this throughout this tournament, especially with the much controversy surrounding it. You see how players engage in different forms of protest.”
Sharifi from Dallas agrees that football can encourage empathy but admits that it is difficult not to connect national teams to the politics of their countries.
“Now people don’t just come to watch football; that’s a thing of the past. It has a political team to it,” he said, adding that he believes something positive can come from these political attachments to the game.
“American fans will sympathize with the Iranian people because after all, the Iranian people are not the Iranian government.”