The United States Soccer Federation briefly displayed Iran’s national flag on social media without the emblem of the Islamic Republic, saying the move supported protesters in Iran ahead of the two nations’ World Cup match Tuesday
Iran’s government reacted by accusing America of removing the name of God from its national flag.
The USSF decision added yet another political firestorm to the Middle East’s first World Cup, the one organizers hoped would be freed from off-the-field controversies.
It happened as the United States was preparing to face Iran in decisive. World Cup match already freighted by the decades of enmity between the countries and the nationwide protests challenging Tehran’s theocratic government.
The USSF said in a statement Sunday morning it decided to forego the official flag on social media accounts to show “support for the women in Iran fighting for basic human rights.”
The Twitter account of the U.S. men’s team displayed a banner with the squad’s matches in the group stage, with the Iranian flag only bearing its green, white, and red colors. Similar was displayed in an Instagram and Facebook post that showed the points totals for its group.
Sunday afternoon found the regular flag with the emblem back in the Twitter banner. Instagram and Facebook posts with the altered flag were removed.
“We wanted to show our support for the women in Iran with our graphic for 24 hours,” the federation said.
Neil Buethe, Federation spokesperson, would not confirm whether Cindy Parlow Cone (USSF President) had made the original decision. Cindy Parlow Cone is a former player on the national team. Mr. Buethe stated that Ms. Parlowcone was not available to discuss this matter.
“This was a decision within the federation,” he said. “I’m not going to get into who knew and who didn’t.”
Asked whether there had been discussions with diplomatic entities, Mr. Buethe said: “There have been at certain times. I’m not going to talk about those, but, again, this is our decision not anyone else’s or pressure from anyone else.”
The USSF displayed the Iranian flag in a graphic on its website that showed Group B standings.
Walker Zimmerman, a Defender, said that the U.S. football players did not know about the posts.
“We didn’t know anything about the posts, but we are supporters of women’s rights,” he said. “We’re focused a lot on Tuesday, on the sporting side, as well. … I think it’s such a focused group on the task, but at the same time we empathize, and we are firm believers in women’s rights and support them.”
The brief absence of the emblem came as monthslong demonstrations challenged Iran’s government following the Sept. 16 death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who had been detained by the country’s morality police.
According to Human Rights Activists Iran, an advocacy group that was formed after the protests, at least 450 people have been killed and over 18,000 have been arrested.
Iran has not released any casualty or arrest numbers for several months. It alleges, but does not provide evidence, that protests were organized by its enemies abroad, such as the U.S.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Tehran has also restricted media access, and has held over 63 journalists and photographers since the protests started. This makes covering the unrest even more difficult.
Iran’s mission to the United Nations and its soccer federation did not respond to a request for comment from The Associated Press. As comments raged online, Iranian state television described the U.S. federation as “removing the symbol of Allah” from the Iranian flag.
Iran’s semiofficial ISNA news agency quoted Safiollah Fagahanpour, an adviser to the Iranian Football Federation, saying that the “measures taken regarding the Islamic Republic of Iran flag are against the law” of FIFA competitions.
“They must be held responsible,” Mr. Fagahanpour said. “Obviously they want to affect Iran’s performance against the U.S by doing this.”
The 1980 Islamic Republic emblem is four curves and a sword. It represents the Islamic saying: “There is no god but God.” It also resembles a tulip or lotus.
At the top and the bottom of the flag, there are 22 inscriptions of “God is Great” as well, which honors the date on the Persian calendar when the Islamic Revolution took hold.
At the moment, the flag is a source of contention. World Cup. Apparent pro-government supporters have waved it, shouting at those demonstrating over Ms. Amini’s death. Others at matches have waved Iran’s lion and sun flag, an emblem of its former ruler, the late Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.
More security forces could be seen at Iran’s last match against Wales. In the capital Tehran, anti-riot police – the same ones cracking down on protests – waved the Iranian flag after the Wales win, angering demonstrators.
The Associated Press reported the story. Ronald Blum, AP Sport Writer, contributed to this report.