Doha, Qatar — The United States Soccer Federation briefly displayed the Iranian national flag on social media without the Islamic Republic emblem, saying the move supported protesters in Iran in front of both nations. world Cup game Tuesday.
The Iranian government responded by accusing America of removing God’s name from its national flag.
The USSF decision added another political storm to the Middle East’s inaugural World Cup as organizers hoped to be spared controversy off the pitch.
It came as the United States prepared to face Iran in a decisive World Cup match already fraught with decades of enmity between the countries and domestic protests challenging the theocratic government in Tehran.
The USSF said in a statement Sunday morning that it had decided to drop the official flag on social media accounts to show “its support for women in Iran who are fighting for basic human rights.”
The USA men’s team’s Twitter account displayed a banner with the team’s group stage matches, with the Iranian flag sporting only its green, white and red colors. The same was seen in a post on his Facebook and Instagram accounts outlining the total points so far in his group.
By Sunday afternoon, the normal flag with the emblem had been restored to the Twitter banner, and Facebook and Instagram posts with the modified flag had been removed.
“We wanted to show our support for women in Iran with our graphic for 24 hours,” the federation said.
Federation spokesman Neil Buethe would not say whether the initial decision had been approved by USSF president Cindy Parlow Cone, a former national team player. Buethe said Parlow Cone was unavailable to discuss the matter.
“It was a decision within the federation,” he said. “I’m not going to get into who knew and who didn’t know.”
When asked if there had been discussions with diplomatic entities, Buethe replied: “There have been at times. I’m not going to go into that, but, again, it’s our decision, not someone else’s or someone else’s pressure.
The USSF displayed the official Iranian flag in a graphic showing the Group B ranking on its website.
Defender Walker Zimmerman said American players were unaware of the messages.
“We didn’t know anything about the posts, but we are supporters of women’s rights,” he said. “We are very focused on Tuesday, also on the sporting level. … I think it’s such a task-focused group, but at the same time, we sympathize and strongly believe in and support women’s rights.
The brief absence of the emblem came amid months-long protests defying the Iranian government following the September 16 death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who had been detained by the country’s vice squad.
The protests have seen at least 450 people killed since they began, along with more than 18,000 arrested, according to Human Rights Activists in Iran, an advocacy group that tracks the protests.
Iran has not released casualty or arrest figures for months and alleges without providing evidence that the protests were fomented by its enemies abroad, including the United States.
Tehran is also restricting media access and has detained more than 63 journalists and photographers since the protests began, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, making coverage of the unrest all the 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 US federation as “removing the symbol of Allah” from the Iranian flag.
Iran’s semi-official ISNA news agency quoted Safiollah Fagahanpour, adviser to the Iranian Football Federation, as saying that “the measures taken regarding the flag of the Islamic Republic of Iran are against the law” of FIFA competitions. .
“They need to be held accountable,” Fagahanpour said. “Obviously they want to affect Iran’s performance against the United States by doing this.”
The emblem of the Islamic Republic, designed in 1980, is made up of four curves with a sword between them. It represents the Islamic saying: “There is no god but God”. It also looks like a tulip or a lotus.
At the top and bottom of the flag there are also 22 inscriptions of “God is great”, which honors the date in the Persian calendar when the Islamic revolution took hold.
The flag has become a point of contention at the World Cup. Apparent pro-government supporters waved it, shouting at those protesting over Amini’s death. Others at matches waved Iran’s lion and sun flag, the emblem of its former leader, the late Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.
More security forces could be seen in Iran’s last game against Wales. In the capital Tehran, riot police – the same police cracking down on protests – waved the Iranian flag after Wales’ victory, angering protesters.
AP Sports Writer Ronald Blum contributed to this report.
Follow Jon Gambrell on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP.