It has long threatened to be one of the World Cup’s biggest flashpoints: the “Great Satan” against the “Axis of Evil”. But on Sunday the USA’s match with Iran became even more highly charged after Iran’s football federation demanded their opponents receive a 10-game ban for “offending the dignity” of their country.
The extraordinary request came after the US Soccer Federation displayed Iran’s national flag on social media, in a now-deleted graphic, without the emblem of the Islamic Republic – in support of protesters in Iran before the nations’ Group B match on Tuesday.
The US explained that it had decided to forgo the official flag on social media accounts to show “support for the women in Iran fighting for basic human rights”.
Iran’s football federation responded with a complaint to Fifa’s ethics committee, saying the US had disrespected the national flag of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The allegation was reported by the semi-official Tasnim news agency, which attributed it as coming from a legal adviser at the Iranian football federation.
“According to section 13 of Fifa rules, any person who offends the dignity or integrity of a country, a person or group of people shall be sanctioned with a suspension lasting at least 10 matches or a specific period, or any other appropriate disciplinary measure,” it said.
The agency also described the US federation as “removing the symbol of Allah” from the Iranian flag, which was designed in 1980. The flag has four curves with a sword between them to represent the Islamic saying: “There is no god but God.”
The flag has become a notable point of contention at this World Cup, with Iran fans who oppose the regime in Tehran waving the lion and sun flag, an emblem of its former ruler, the late Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, instead.
However, small groups of men supportive of Iran’s government were seen angrily chanting “the Islamic Republic of Iran” at women giving interviews to foreign journalists outside the stadium before their most recent game, against Wales.
Fifa has refused to comment, but a number of well-placed sources have suggested that the prospect of a US ban is highly unlikely.
Meanwhile, less than 48 hours before the match kicks off, the Qatari authorities and Fifa are still refusing to provide reassurances that Iran fans protesting in favour of human rights will not be barred by security guards if they wear T-shirts bearing the slogan “Women, Life, Freedom”.
The phrase has become the rallying cry for protesters since a 22-year-old Kurdish-Iranian woman, Mahsa Amini, died in hospital while in police custody. Before Iran’s last game against Wales several fans were told they could not enter the stadium unless they changed their T-shirts with the slogan on it. Others had their flags confiscated.
Fifa’s official fans’ guide warns supporters that “promoting any political, offensive and/or discriminatory messages” is not permitted. The protesters maintain that the slogan also reflects a demand for women in Iran to enjoy the same basic rights as men.
Despite repeated questioning from the Guardian, the Supreme Committee – the Qatari World Cup organisers – and Fifa have refused to criticise security officials or to clarify what will be acceptable on Tuesday.
Asked to explain why so many Iran fans at this World Cup were wearing attire with “Women, Life, Freedom” on it, one fan said: “For Iranians all over the world, our hearts are with the women and the young. Our team belongs to the people, not the Islamic regime.”
The protests in Iran have seen at least 450 people killed, and more than 18,000 arrested, according to Human Rights Activists in Iran, an advocacy group following the demonstrations. – Guardian