US battles Iran at World Cup amid heightened tensions

The U.S. and Iranian men’s soccer teams will face off in the World Cup on Tuesday afternoon amid heightened tensions between the two nations over ongoing protests in Iran and a recent controversy over now-deleted social media posts.

The 2 p.m. ET soccer match in Qatar comes after Iranian state media called for the U.S. to be banned from the World Cup after the U.S. Soccer Federation (USSF) over the weekend posted a photo banner of squad matches involving several countries.

But Iran’s team was represented by an altered Iranian national flag.

The doctored Iranian flag in the USSF’s post included the basic red, green and white colors of the national flag, but it did not include the Islamic republic emblem representing the phrase, “There is no god but God.”

USSF has since deleted the posts, which were intended to support protesters and women in Iran who are demonstrating against the government after the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who died while in police custody for improperly wearing a hijab.

Iranian state news agency Tasnim said in a statement on Sunday that the USSF breached the FIFA charter and should be kicked out of the World Cup, while other Iranian officials slammed the soccer federation for being unethical.

The regular Iranian flag was restored by Sunday afternoon on the USSF’s accounts. The soccer association said in a statement it “wanted to show our support for the women in Iran with our graphic for 24 hours.”

U.S. soccer players and coaches participating in the World Cup seemed to be caught off guard by the move. Gregg Berhalter, the manager of the U.S. men’s national soccer team, said on Monday that players and coaching staff “had no idea” the image would be posted online.

“We’re not focused on those outside things, and all we can do, on our behalf, is apologize on behalf of the players and the staff,” he said at a news conference. “But it’s not something that we were a part of.”

U.S. defender Walker Zimmerman said players “didn’t know anything about the posts, but we are supporters of women’s rights.”

“We empathize and we are firm believers in women’s rights and support them,” he said.

The protest movement in Iran sparked a resistance from the Iranian soccer team, whose players refused to sing their country’s national anthem when the World Cup started.

The U.S. soccer team will face Iran in their third Group B match Tuesday afternoon. The U.S. will need a win to advance to the knockout stage of the World Cup.

Protests have swept Iran since the Sept. 16 death of Amini, with the Iranian government cracking down on the demonstrations with security forces.

An Iranian general acknowledged on Monday that more than 300 people have died in the protests, but human rights groups put the death toll above 450 protesters and 61 security forces. More than 18,000 people are estimated to have been detained.

The protests have raised tensions between the Iranian government and the U.S. government, with Tehran accusing Washington of fomenting unrest and the Biden administration sanctioning Iranian officials over the protests.

The nations also have existing conflicts over the revival of an international agreement that would limit Iran’s nuclear arms in return for an easing of sanctions and Iran supplying Russia with armed drones in its war against Ukraine.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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