BEIRUT — “Football is war minus the shooting,” George Orwell famously mused. No game will illustrate this sentiment more than when ferocious foes Iran and the United States face off on the highest football stage in the world for only the second time in history. On Tuesday, the bickering sides will take the pitch, in a game that will determine the World Cup knockout stage fate of what is arguably this edition’s most politically explosive group.
The last time the two countries, geopolitical rivals for almost half a century, had a sports-related showdown of such strong significance was at the 1998 World Cup in France in what then-president of the US Soccer Federation, Hank Steinbrecher, called “the mother of all games.” The politically fraught confrontation —founder of the Islamic Republic Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had, after all, called the US “The Great Satan” — ended in what many American outlets still refer to as a “humiliating” 2-1 defeat, which was especially crushing as the US team was widely expected to win, considering they were ranked 11th in FIFA’s world rankings compared to Iran’s No. 42 placement.
Tensions are possibly even higher this time around – on Monday, Iranian state media called for the US to be thrown out of the 2022 World Cup after the United States Soccer Federation modified Iran’s flag on all its social media platforms, ostensibly to show support for protesters in Iran. US coach Gregg Berhalter apologized the same day.
While fans all over the world will watch this game while holding their breath, especially in countries that have been heavily impacted by US imperialism or at least heavy meddling in internal affairs, there is probably no population in the world, other than those of the two competing countries, that is more invested in the outcome of this game than tiny Lebanon.
For decades now, there has been a political split between an unofficial yet obvious pro-Iran bloc and a pro-Saudi and US coalition, with Hezbollah leading the former and the Future Movement and its allies the latter. Although the Future Movement, led by former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, did not participate in this year’s parliamentary elections, it still carries significant political clout in Lebanon. According to some Lebanese, the country has been reduced to little more than a ball in the hands, or rather at the feet, of regional powers. But is this sentiment reflected in who these Lebanese end up rooting for?
In Haret Hreik, a neighborhood in Beirut’s suburbs where the maze-like streets are dotted with the holy trinity of flags — Brazilian, German, Argentinian — 29-year-old Mohamad is eagerly anticipating the monumental clash. He will be watching what he describes as a “sensitive” game with a group of friends at one of the many cafes in the neighborhood. The surrounding streets, he predicts, will be empty for the match’s 90-minute duration.
“Of course, I want Iran to win. Everyone I know wants Iran to win. They have given Lebanon so much, like fuel and other kinds of support,” he says. “Now it’s their turn to get something. And the victory will only be sweeter if it’s against the US. I don’t have to tell you how much chaos and misery they have caused in our region, not just in Lebanon.”
However, Mohamad says, as much as he’s rooting for Iran against the US, Iran is not the team he wants to see taking home the coveted World Cup trophy: “Look, the Iran-US game specifically is about politics. But the World Cup is about football. I’ve been an Argentina fan my whole life and I will always support them before any other team.”
While he predicts his whole neighborhood will be “ecstatic” if Iran wins, he does not expect any chaotic scenes or gunfire celebrations. “At the most we’ll have a motorcycle celebration,” he says, referring to the known Lebanese tradition of participating in an — often spontaneous — triumphant convoy of motorcycles while loudly honking, shouting and singing. In the case of World Cup football victories, flags of the winning team are usually attached to the motorcycles or waved by ecstatic fans.
Mohamad Haidar, a 30-year-old Germany fan from Hadath, in Baabda, south of Beirut, says that if it was not for the Iranian team’s gesture in support of the ongoing anti-regime protests in Iran, which were sparked by the death in September of Mahsa Amini while she was in police custody, he would have been neutral towards both teams, but he is “in favor of any nation striving for its basic and human rights, equality and justice against fascist, religious and unjust regimes.”
“The thing is that just because the Iranian regime is wrong, suppressive and fanatic doesn’t make the USA’s decorated concept of democracy less fake,” Haidar says. “Yes, they are democratic in their own country, yet they cause chaos in their indirect sense of judgement. Their support for the Israeli terror is a fair example of pointing out the hypocrisy of the US government,” he adds.
Recent analyses by American media outlets have found fault with the long-espoused notion that the US is a functioning democracy. Similarly, in recent years, leading global human rights organizations like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and even the United Nations have designated Israel as an apartheid state.
Money before politics
Elsewhere in Beirut’s southern suburbs, Ahmad*, who declined to give his real name as he’s engaging in illegal activity with his unlicensed betting agency, is taking bets on World Cup games. He says that betting-wise, he has not seen a particular uptick compared to any of the previous World Cup games. Most bets are being placed on teams like Brazil and Germany. “Today, two people came to bet $1,000 on Iran,” he tells L’Orient Today. “But that’s not because it’s Iran, it’s because they think Iran will play till death with the US to jump to the round of 16.”
Ahmad says that gamblers only care about money, not whether Iran wins or not. “Those who really want Iran to win don’t gamble because they’re Muslims and most of them are with Hezbollah. It’s considered haram [forbidden].”
Most bets for the Iran-US clash are placed on both teams scoring, and the biggest numbers indicate that most people believe the game will end in a draw, Ahmad says. “However, many are betting on the US to win, even if they support Iran. This is about money, not politics,” he adds. “But personally, even though I’ve always been a Brazil fan, this time I want an Arab team like Morocco to win [the World Cup].”
Mazen, a 32-year-old from Chiyah, who is not placing any bets but was hanging out with friends outside Ahmad’s shop until the start of the next game, agrees: “There’s something special about this World Cup. Would you believe me if I told you many in Dahiyeh [colloquial name for Beirut’s southern suburbs] are even rooting for KSA [Kingdom of Saudi Arabia] to win? I can hardly believe it. Don’t get me wrong, I hate KSA and so does everyone I know. But football seems to be uniting us Arabs for the first time in a long time.”
He excitedly shows L’Orient Today a collection of memes that have been shared in several of his WhatsApp group chats. One says that this will be the first time Iran and the US play “outside of Lebanon” while another jokes that whoever wins the game “gets the Middle East.”
Mazen wants Morocco or Tunisia to win: “They always think that Arabs are not fit and they don’t count us or they think that we are an easy bet. So, I want the West to change its minds about us,” he says. “Anyway, haven’t you noticed? The biggest winner in this World Cup is Palestine.”
A string of clips of football fans in Qatar, both Arabs and from non-Arab countries, flat-out refusing to speak to Israeli journalists and often berating them, saying “there is no Israel, only Palestine,” have gone viral on social media, with many expressing their approval and even joy about this trend. Additionally, many games feature supporters, often of Arab countries, holding up massive banners that say “Free Palestine.”
‘Our revolution is theirs’
On the other side of the city, in Rmeil, 36-year-old Reem, a kindergarten teacher, is looking at flags while simultaneously shopping for Christmas decorations.
“I’m a bit torn this year,” she says. “Usually, I’d be rooting for France because I have a lot of family living there and it feels like a second home. And they’re a really good team. But seeing this wave of Arab solidarity these past few days, it’s really beautiful. It makes me want a North African team to win instead … if you look at the French team, many of their players are North African anyway!”
Asked who she wants to win in the Iran-US game, Reem does not have to think long: “Iran. Not only because I don’t like the US government, but football is a way of bringing people together. And I wish that for Iran more than anything, especially with what they’re going through. We’ve seen what a failed revolution can do to a nation and hopefully a win can strengthen their unity,” she says. “Our revolution has become theirs in a way, and vice versa.”
Jad*, who declined to give his real name as he is reporting from Qatar as a journalist, expressed a similar sentiment, albeit with a stronger political tinge: “Aside from the obvious political hatred towards both the US and also the Iranian mullah regime, the Iranian players stand to make a political statement with their win, and celebration, that is if they were allowed to celebrate as they want.”
Aside from that, Jad believes that Iran simply deserves to win because they have a better team and “are more respected on the international level.”
But ultimately, for him, it is mostly about supporting the protests that are sweeping Iran: “Players like Sardar Azmoun for example are a critic of the regime in Iran, and he represents the demonstrators on the ground and was almost cut from the team because of that. With calls by [celebrities like] comedian Omid Djalili for the players to show their support for the demonstrators by celebrating in ways that show their support to the women on the ground, it’s going to be a spectacle.”
“I want the Iranians to capitalize on the demonstration and shed light on it, I don’t want the Americans to steal the story and make it theirs like they usually do,” Jad says. “The Americans are new to this game and remind me of the Gulf people who are trying to buy football, a game that is inherently not in their DNA. They just want to show they are good at everything. It's fun to watch them fall on their faces. [...] I also want for Saudi Arabia to be knocked out. I can't remove politics from football, as it's all interlinked.”
It’s football, not soccer
Wassim Maktabi, researcher at the Beirut-based independent think-tank The Policy Initiative, is not led by any geopolitical concerns when it comes to this particular game but rather by a personal connection: “I’m rooting for Iran because my grandfathers had Persian roots,” he tells L’Orient Today. “Also, if you ever tried Persian food you’d know!”
It proved to be quite the task to find any football aficionados in Beirut who want the US team to defeat Iran, even among people who are not exactly fans of the Iranian regime, to put it lightly. Many point to the fact that football is a game of the people, not of politics, while others have a more straightforward bone to pick with the Americans: “They have the nerve to call our beautiful game ‘soccer’! That’s reason enough for me to hope they will never ever win a World Cup,” 62-year-old Michel says.