The 2022 World Cup draw on Friday put Iran’s national football team in what was described as the most politically charged group of the contest. Team Melli will be up against England and the USA, as well as the winner of the European playoffs – which could be Ukraine.
Iranian football is already deeply politicized, from club ownership and ticket sales to broadcasting rights and, of course, the ban on women in stadiums. But in Group B, players will also be confronted by two, potentially three countries that their government has thrown itself into active confrontation with.
For more than 40 years, chants of “Death to America” and “Death to England” have been constant refrains at Friday prayers and other state-backed events. Iran will face those two countries in Qatar on November 21 and November 29 respectively. The Islamic Republic has also backed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, outwardly at least.
Not surprisingly, immediately after the draw put Iran in the same group as England and the US, the jokes on social networks started. “Israel should be in there, too”; “With this grouping, the [hardliners] will be Iran’s biggest of Iran”; “Hope Ukraine joins our group; we’ll definitely get money from Putin for the camps and preparation of the national team”; “Death to America, Death to England, Death to the winner of European playoffs!”; “If only Israel was in the group. Our job would be much easier because we could just shout ‘Death to Group B’ in Friday prayers”; “Mr. FIFA! Please: the fourth team in our group must be a country whose flag we have burnt at least twice”; “Tomorrow Russia is going to announce that FIFA must guarantee Russia will be in the World Cup or Iran won’t play”.
What Other Members of Group B Are Saying
The manager of the first team Iran will have to face is Gareth Southgate of England. “The first two teams (the USA and IR Iran] we've not played for quite a while,” he said after the final draw. “The third (Wales or the winner of Scotland-Ukraine) is a total unknown but throws up a possible British derby... Our aim is to get through the group, so we will have to see how the first game goes for both teams.”
In fact, England and Iran have never played – unlike Iran and the US, which faced off in 1998 in a World Cup match that ended 1-2 to Iran. “We think it's a good group,” said Gregg Berhalter, the current American head coach. “We know every opponent in the World Cup is difficult but with England you definitely get an exciting match-up.
“Iran is also a different opponent who did well in qualifying games… Iran is focused on doing a good job at the World Cup and we are focused on the same thing.”
Alan Shearer, a former star player for England, also reacted to news of the draw on Friday, hinting that England should be able to secure an easy win over the first two competitors. “I have to say I'm pleased that Scotland, Wales or Ukraine have been put in England's group. It just adds that little bit more excitement in that group, I think. When you look at Iran and the USA, you think, okay England. But if it’s Scotland or Wales that makes it that a bit tougher.”
November 29: An Auspicious Day for Iran
FIFA’s schedule puts the Iran v USA game on a date considered by many to be a milestone in Iranian sports. On that day in 1997 the national football teams of Iran and Australia faced off at Melbourne Cricket Ground to establish which would be among the 32 teams going to the 1998 World Cup in France.
Austria was ahead 2-0 with just 19 minutes left in the game. But then the unimaginable happened: Iranian footballers Karim Bagheri and Khodadad Azizi scored two goals in rapid succession, and since the game was played on Australia’s home turf, Iran qualified for the World Cup. The victory was met with mass celebrations on the streets of Iran.
Will the Supreme Leader Stay Up for the Game?
The following year Iran and the US played on June 28, 1998 at the Stade de Gerland in Lyon, and was described then as “the most politically charged match in World Cup history”: enough to keep even the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic awake.
“To be honest, I didn’t want to watch the game that night,” Khamenei told Iran’s footballers after they got home, “because it was late and it was time for me to sleep. But as I was sitting there, I turned on the TV, and suddenly saw him [Hamid Reza Estili] score a goal. I was no longer sleepy and I sat and watched the game to the end.”
A few hours before the match, Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting had quoted US Secretary of State Warren Christopher as having said: “Today’s game is a war, not a football match.” The US has already denied that Christopher said any such thing. But this has not stopped Iran’s foreign ministry from claiming it showed “hostility towards the people of Iran.”
A Reprieve for FIFA
FIFA, one presumes, will be delighted with Group B. The first two pairings are such a talking point in their own right that they will distract from an ongoing matter FIFA has manifestly failed to deal with in Iran: the ban on Iranian women entering stadiums.
This is a golden opportunity for the world football body. In 2019 FIFA had claimed it would actively monitor Iran’s ongoing violation of the disciplinary code after public outcry over the self-immolation of female fan Sahar Khodayari. Three years later, however, FIFA remains mute and the two most recent incidents – the Tehran Derby, and Iran’s last World Cup qualifier on March 29, in which women ticket-holders were pepper-sprayed at the stadium gates – again went unpunished.
So confident was the Iranian government in FIFA’s inaction that Safiollah Faghanpour, head of the Iranian Football Federation’s legal department, claimed that although Iran had received a letter from FIFA after the qualifier, there was no deadline set for Iran to respond, and “It seems that nothing specific is going to happen at this juncture.” The amount of political excitement surrounding Group B will doubtless allow FIFA to continue to do nothing specific, at least for another season.