USA vs Iran: The Political Significance of a Football Match
Bill Shankly, the legendary manager of Liverpool of England football club once countered that football transcends life and death. In his own words, “somebody said that football’s a matter of life and death to you, I said ‘listen, it’s more important than that.’” The Scot left the club in 1974 but his eternal quote still has a place in football journalism. Of course, football shouldn’t be a precondition for our existence, meaning one would die if one didn’t play it or die if one lost a game. Far from it. Perhaps, what Shankly seems to have in mind is that sport has much more than a cultural and leisurely significance. And it all depends on who is playing and what attachments are given to the glory and pleasures to be derived from it. The morbid imageries of death are simply incapable of capturing the complete essence of what football means to Bill Shankly, a man who gave his all to a club he couldn’t do without and to a game he loved with obsession.
Something similar to Shankly’s passionate sentiments came to play when the draws for the 2022 FIFA world cup in Qatar were made. The United States of America is pitted against England, and the Islamic Republic of Iran. The trio will be joined by either of Scotland, Ukraine or Wales. One suspects that the group B game between the US and Iran is going to be more than an ordinary soccer match-up. There are undertones of politics all around that eagerly anticipated fixture.
The United States of America and the Islamic republic of Iran are not the best of political friends and there is every possibility that this sentiment will be carried onto the pitch in Qatar in spite of all the friendly overtures that soccer should bring. The 1979 Islamic Revolution which enthroned the regime of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and the attack on the US embassy in the same year; effectively portrayed the United States as a hostile foreign power. Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi who had enjoyed US support was chased away from his palace by a mass of people eager for a theocratic and Islamic state. Eccentric fans would want to amplify divisions between the two politically disparate countries. Religious bigots would even want to ascribe victory by either team to assumed religious superiority rather than fitness and tactical ingenuity on the pitch. In such a situation, a draw would serve just fine. But this is not the first time that both countries would be meeting on a soccer pitch.
On 28 June 1998 at the FIFA World Cup which was held in France, the US soccer team lost by a goal to two against Iran. This was a game where the United States simply misfired in front of goal. This was strange for a country that fires supremely well on political and military fronts. But that is the exact nature of soccer, unpredictable, susceptible to breaking at any possible edge; indeed a game where history or pedigree sometimes doesn’t mean much. That triumph of the Iranian team reverberated on the streets of Tehran and elsewhere in the country, with the people rejoicing as though they had won the world cup itself. But that is only an indication of what a clash between these two countries mean.
As the two perennial foes prepare to lock horns again, all hands must be on deck to ensure long-held grudges do not spill onto the pitch in Qatar. Security arrangements must be topnotch where no errors or slips will be permitted. This particular game will carry huge emotions, overarching national pride and political connotations. This is football and anything can happen just as Wyclef Jean has reminded us in “Anything can happen,” a song off Carnival, a 1997 hip-hop album, “Yo, when you’re rolling to the carnival, anything can happen/what, what, say what, say what, anything can happen.” And the Qatar 2022 FIFA World Cup beginning in November will indeed be a carnival in the Arabian country. Any untoward incident or unruly fans behavior will render the 29 November clash between Iran and the United States of America a tragedy that may possibly transcend the soccer pitch. But there is hope that football will unite where politics may have stuttered.