For many Arab fans, the US-Iran World Cup match mirrored regional rivalry

BAGHDAD (AP) – The US team’s victory over Iran at the World Cup on Tuesday was closely watched across the Middle East, where the two countries have been engaged in a Cold War for more than four decades and where many are rooting for the region. Blame one or both. Problem.

Iran’s critics say it has fueled war and unrest throughout the Middle East through its support of powerful terrorist groups in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and the Palestinian territories. Supporters see Iran as the leader of an “axis of resistance” to what they see as US imperialism, corrupt Arab rulers, and Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.

The division is particularly acute in Lebanon and Iraq, where heavily armed Iran-backed political factions vie for influence with rivals more oriented towards the West. In those countries, many believe Iran or the US are due to come – even if only on the pitch.

Others wished the plague on both their houses.

“Both are opponents of Iraq and have played a negative role in the country,” said Haidar Shaker in downtown Baghdad, where a cafe displayed the flags of both countries hanging outside. “It is a sports tournament, and they both are participating in it. It is all for us.

A widely circulated meme ahead of Tuesday’s match between the US and Iran jokingly referred to it as “the first time they will play outside Lebanon”. Another Twitter user joked that whoever wins the group stage “gets to Iraq.”

Lebanese fans of the Iranian team smoke water pipes as they sit in a coffee shop watching a World Cup Group B soccer match between Iran and the United States in the Hezbollah stronghold in the southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon, Tuesday, Nov. 29. 2022. (AP/Hussain Malla)

Iran-backed Hezbollah was the only armed group to lay down its arms after Lebanon’s 1975–1990 civil war. It says its weapons are needed to defend the country from Israel and blames Lebanon’s economic crisis on US sanctions. Opponents denounce Hezbollah as an “Iranian occupation”, while many Lebanese accuse both the US and Iran of meddling in their internal affairs.

In Iraq, the US-led invasion of 2003 led to years of intense violence and sectarian conflict, and Iran-backed political factions and militias largely filled the void. While US forces and Iran-backed militias found themselves on the same side against the Islamic State extremist group, they have exchanged fire on several occasions since their defeat.

Both Lebanon and Iraq have suffered years of political impasse, along the main dividing line between Iran’s allies and adversaries.

In Yemen, Iran-aligned Houthi militias captured the capital and much of the country’s north in 2014. Since then the Houthis have been at war with an array of factions backed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, two US allies.

In the Syrian Civil War, Iran supported the government of President Bashar Assad against rebels, some supported by the West. In the Palestinian territories, it supports Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Both are terrorist groups that do not recognize Israel, set out for its destruction, and have carried out hundreds of attacks against Israeli civilians over the years.

Interviews with football fans in Beirut and Baghdad revealed mixed feelings about the match.

In Beirut’s southern suburbs, a hotbed of Hezbollah support, youths draped in Iranian flags gathered at a cafe with “Death to America” ​​flags to watch the match.

Ali Nehme said, “We are against America in football, politics and everything.” “God is with Lebanon and Iran.”

On a seaside promenade across the city, Beirut resident Aline Noehed said, “Of course I am not with Iran after all the disasters it has done. I am definitely with America. However, he added that the US was also “not helping us 100%.”

The post-game reaction on the streets of Beirut after the US beat Iran 1-0, eliminating them from the tournament and advancing to the knockout rounds, was far more subdued than Brazil’s victory the previous day – a victory in Lebanon. Fan Favorite – Over Switzerland.

In Baghdad, Ali Fadel was cheering Iran because “it is a neighboring country, an Asian country.”

“There are many relations between us and them,” he said.

Youth perform on stage before the streaming of a soccer match between Iran and the United States at the World Cup in Qatar on a large screen at a cultural center in Tehran, Iran, Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2022. (AP/Vahid Salemi)

In Irbil, in Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region in the north, twenty-seven-year-old Zainab Fakhri was urging the US to defeat Iran “to punish the Iranian regime”, referring to recent protests. There.

In the Gaza Strip, a war-torn Palestinian enclave ruled by Hamas that has been under an Israeli and Egyptian blockade since 2007, most appeared to be cheering for Iran and dejected when it lost.

Wasim al-Hendi said, “We are with Iran, whether we win or lose, because it is the only Islamic state that supports the Gaza Strip and its resistance.”

Regional politics hovered over the last matchup at the 1998 World Cup, when Iran was knocked out of the tournament after defeating the United States 2–1. Less than two decades after Iran’s Islamic revolution, the US-backed Shah and protesters overran the US embassy, ​​triggering a prolonged hostage crisis.

French riot police were on site at Lyon’s stadium that year, but they were not needed. The teams posed for a group photo together, and Iran’s players also brought white roses to their opponents.

In this year’s matchup, Iran has been dogged by nationwide protests, with some Iranians openly turning against their own team. The players declined to sing along to their national anthem before their opening match, which was seen as an expression of sympathy for the protests, but reversed course and sang ahead of their next one.

Iran players line up for the World Cup Group B football match between Iran and the United States at Al Thumama Stadium in Doha, Qatar, Tuesday, November 29, 2022. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)

In some areas of Tehran, people chanted “Death to the dictator!” After the match, even though it was past midnight local time.

Daniel Reich, a visiting associate professor at Georgetown University Qatar who researches the politics of sports, said World Cup fans are not an indicator of political affiliation, even in countries with deep divisions.

He noted that local sports in Lebanon are “highly politicised”, with all major basketball and soccer clubs having political and sectarian affiliations. But when it comes to the World Cup – where Lebanon has never qualified – fans stick with any number of teams.

This is true across the region, where fans wearing Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo jerseys can be found from Gaza to Afghanistan.

“It’s one of the few areas where people have the freedom and liberty to choose a country they like, not a country they think they have an obligation to be associated with,” Reiche said. .

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.