Doha, Qatar – Political tensions have been high between the United States and Iran for more than half a century, but to some football fans gearing up to watch the two nations face off at the World Cup, the beautiful game rises above politics.
American-Iranian Shervin Sharifi, 31, is a die-hard football fan who collects football shirts as a hobby. His collection so far spans 107 shirts, from various clubs to national teams. Approximately 40 to 45 of those are from the Iranian national team alone.
“You can say that I am kind of addicted. This is my life. This is what I live for,” Sharifi told Al Jazeera, his voice already coarse from three days of cheering at the games.
He and his friends travelled from Dallas, Texas, to support “Team Melli”, the Iranian national team, including at the USA vs Iran match on Tuesday, where the stakes could not be higher.
After Iran’s 2-0 win over Wales and the 0-0 tie between the USA and England, the Americans need to win tonight’s match to advance to the knock-out stages of the tournament, while the Iranians may only need a draw. Only one of them can go through from Group B. This will be the second time the two teams face off in a World Cup.
“I can tell you this for sure — the Iranian players have more passion for this game because they’re not just playing for themselves to be a success; they have 80 million people to make happy at home. That’s a lot of weight on your shoulders,” he told Al Jazeera while standing in Doha’s Souq Waqif market.
Sharifi said that he recognised that the game represents more than just football for many and that there have been protests during games and elsewhere.
“I’m not saying [the USA team] is not as passionate, but [it’s been] 43 years of this kind of a stranglehold on a country,” he said, referring to the Islamic Republic coming into power following the 1979 Iranian Revolution.
“When [the Iranian team] steps on that field, they’re not just playing for a game. They’re playing for change.”
For Sharifi, the match between the US and Iran holds a special significance since he first fell in love with football when the two teams faced off during the 1998 World Cup match in Lyon, France. He remembers watching Iran beat the US team 2-1 when he was seven with his father, who immigrated from Iran with his mother.
That match has been described as the most politically charged match in the history of the World Cup due to the hostile geopolitical relations between the two countries.
Sharifi said his father “cared more [about] the political side of the football match, and that’s what made me excited. But it didn’t matter to me. I was very young. All I saw was 11 men on the field, and it blew my mind.”
Ahead of the match in 1998, tensions could not have been higher. Iran Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei even threatened to pull the team out of the game as he did not want the players shaking hands with the US team as protocol dictates.
But the players took a different approach. Both teams posed for an improvised photo together on the field — an iconic moment — and the Iranian players gave bouquets of white flowers to their opponents as a symbol of peace.
“Looking back at 1998, that was a unifying moment bringing the Iran and US together,” Sharifi said.
A lot has changed since that World Cup game, and ahead of Tuesday’s match, the focus of tensions in Iran has spread beyond concerns with the US.
For weeks, protests have been ongoing in Iran over the death in police custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who was arrested in September for “unsuitable attire”.
Children have been among more than a dozen people killed this month in a surge of protests.
In Iran’s first game against England, the team did not sing the national anthem, which was interpreted as a gesture of support for the protests.
During their second match against Wales, the team did sing the anthem but in a reserved manner, as Al Jazeera’s Maziar Motamedi reported.
“Team Melli is a way for us to bring a spotlight to this issue … the moment that the Iranian national team did not sing the national anthem, everybody was reporting it,” Sharifi said.
Vignesh Ram, 37, an American-Canadian who travelled from the San Francisco Bay Area, is in Qatar with his father to cheer for the US team.
Ram believes that football can be a unifying force and is not focused on the political tensions between the two countries.
“For US fans of football, travelling internationally gives an opportunity to gain many more perspectives,” he said. “It brings people together in a way that’s truly meaningful, and the [US] team has never been great, so there’s less to lose. There’s less national pride on the line.”
“I actually think it’s a better opportunity to forge stronger bonds.”
Ram sees these games as an opportunity to understand what people who are not from the US are going through daily.
“Football reminds us that countries are not their governments, and they are in fact their people,” he said. “I think we see this constantly during this tournament, especially with many controversies surrounding it. You see the ways players have engaged in different forms of protests.”
Sharifi from Dallas agrees that football can encourage empathy but admits that it is difficult not to connect national teams to the politics of their countries.
“People are not just coming for football now; that’s a thing of the past. It has a political contingent with it,” he said, adding that he believes something positive can come from these political attachments to the game.
“US fans are going to be sympathetic to the Iranian people because, at the end of the day, the Iranian people are not the Iranian government.”