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Some tell us to keep politics out of the World Cup. Others tell us to keep the World Cup out of politics. Whether we like it or not, politics and the World Cup are inextricably intertwined.
The Iran vs. United States match was not like any other game — it was more than that. And I am not saying this because the match represents my Iranian-American identity. It is because the Iran team had more at stake than just advancing to win the World Cup. Their livelihoods were on the line.
The last time Iran and the U.S. played against each other was in 1998 in France. I was not even born yet. Throughout the last 24 years, a lot has changed geopolitically, but when it comes to Iran and the U.S., not much has — until recently.
A revolution is happening in Iran. The Iran team was playing with the backdrop of over 450 killed and 18,000 arrested in Iran since mid-September. As the Iranian diaspora grappled with whether or not to support the team, one thing remained true: Iran in the World Cup was another opportunity to amplify, from the stadiums of Qatar, the atrocities happening on the other side of the Persian Gulf. Playing against the U.S. was an opportunity for the revolution to reach a large crowd who might be avid sports watchers, but not avid news readers.
I came to the game somewhat indifferent about the outcome. But a few minutes in, it dawned on me that the Iranian team is not only an underdog in this game, but in real life. Under threat of crackdowns by the regime, their resistance on the field is a microcosm of what all of Iran is experiencing right now.
If you did not watch the game in this context, you missed a lot. After not singing the national anthem during the first round of games, it was allegedly reported that if the players did not behave, their families would face “violence and torture.” In their last two games, they reluctantly sang the national anthem with forlorn faces and refrained from any acts of resistance — seemingly out of fear of retribution.
Meanwhile, they played knowing that their fans who did any small act to support the revolution were being confronted and, in some alleged cases, arrested by the Qatari police for their political displays. Their experiences at the World Cup do not remain in Qatar; by way of the Qatari government, the Islamic Republic’s Basij General may have received these names and may make it difficult for these dissenters to return to Iran, as indicated in a recent leaked audio recording.
How can a team focus on playing when the real match is against the regime and its human rights violations? How can fans safely use the World Cup to draw light to the revolution knowing that Qatar is not a safe haven from this oppressive regime?
I recognize that the Iranian diaspora is fragmented on the World Cup and other things. I understand that many in the diaspora felt Iran’s presence at the World Cup was a distraction from the movement on the ground. Many Iranian Americans were not enthusiastically supporting the national team as they typically do because of the regime’s “sportswashing” aiming to act as a camouflage of its human rights violations.
Iran won in my eyes not because I am a sore loser — as I said, I was somewhat indifferent. To me, they won because the Iran team continued to persevere amidst these unprecedented circumstances. They are yet another example of victims of this brutal regime.
Many other teams will go home and train for 2026, but the players of Iran have gone home to an ongoing national movement pushing for civil rights for all and an end to the Islamic Republic. They have returned to a nation that has been on strike for three days. A nation where unlawfully detained protestors continue to face rape, torture, and executions. And a nation where the “morality police” and the ruthless terror of the regime continue, despite mainstream media attempting to prematurely confirm otherwise.
It is paramount that we recognize the people of Iran’s fight is not over. Although Iran is no longer in the World Cup, this match served as a reminder that we must dedicate the same energy we have given to this global sporting event to Iran’s historic liberation movement. We must keep our eyes on Iran as they fight for “women, life, freedom.”
Ciara S. Moezidis is a second-year Master’s student in Theological Studies at the Harvard Divinity School.
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