BAGHDAD — The U.S. team’s must-win World Cup match against Iran will be closely watched across the Middle East, where the two nations have been engaged in a cold war for over four decades and where many blame one or both for the region’s woes.
Critics of Iran say it has fomented war and unrest across the Arab world by supporting powerful armed groups in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and the Palestinian territories. Supporters view it as the leader of an “axis of resistance” against what they see as U.S. imperialism, corrupt Arab rulers and Israel's oppression of the Palestinians.
The divide is especially intense in Lebanon and Iraq, where heavily armed Iran-backed political factions vie for political influence with opponents more oriented toward the West. In those countries, many believe Iran or the U.S. are due for comeuppance — even if only on the pitch.
Others wish a plague on both their houses.
“Both are adversaries of Iraq and played a negative role in the country,” Haydar Shakar said, in the the Karada neighborhood of downtown Baghdad, where a cafe displayed the flags of both countries hanging outside. “It’s a sports tournament, and they’re both taking part in it. That’s all it is to us.”
A meme widely circulated ahead of Tuesday’s match between the U.S. and Iran jokingly referred to it as “the first time they will play outside of Lebanon.” Another Twitter user joked that whoever wins the group stage “takes Iraq.”
The Iran-backed Hezbollah was the only armed group to keep its weapons after Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war. It says its arms are needed to defend the country from Israel and blames Lebanon's economic crisis in part on U.S. sanctions. Opponents decry Hezbollah as an “Iranian occupation,” while many Lebanese accuse both the U.S. and Iran of meddling in their internal affairs.
In Iraq, the 2003 U.S.-led invasion led to years of intense violence and sectarian strife, and Iran-backed political factions and militias largely filled the vacuum. While U.S. forces and Iran-backed militias found themselves on the same side against the Islamic State extremist group, they have traded fire on several occasions since its defeat.
Both Lebanon and Iraq have had to contend with years of political gridlock, with the main dividing line running between Iran's allies and opponents.
In Yemen, the Iran-aligned Houthi militia captured the capital and much of the country's north in 2014. It has been at war since then with an array of factions supported by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, two U.S. allies.
In Syria's civil war, Iran supported President Bashar Assad's government against rebel groups, including those supported by the West. In the Palestinian territories, it backs Hamas and Islamic Jihad, militant factions that do not recognize Israel and have carried out scores of attacks over the years.
Interviews with soccer fans in Beirut and Baghdad revealed mixed emotions ahead of the match.
“Of course I’m not with Iran after all the disasters they made,” Beirut resident Aline Noueyhed said. "Definitely, I’m with America,” though she added that the US also was “not 100% helping us.”
In Baghdad, Ali Fadel plans to cheer for Iran, because “it’s a neighboring country, an Asian country.”
“There are many linkages between us and them,” he added.
Nour Sabah plans to root for the U.S. because “they are a strong team, and (the U.S.) controls the world."
Regional politics hovered over the last matchup between the U.S. and Iran, at the 1998 World Cup. That came less than two decades after Iran's Islamic Revolution toppled the U.S.-backed shah and protesters overran the U.S. Embassy, leading to a prolonged hostage crisis.
French riot police were on site at the stadium in Lyon that year, but they weren’t needed. The teams posed together in a group photo, and Iran’s players even brought white roses for their opponents.
In this year's matchup, allegiances have been scrambled by the nationwide protests gripping Iran, with some Iranians openly rooting against their own team. The players declined to sing along to their national anthem ahead of their opening match, in what was seen as an expression of sympathy for the protests, but reversed course and sang ahead of their next one.
Danyel Reiche, a visiting associate professor at Georgetown University Qatar who has researched the politics of sports, said World Cup fandom is not necessarily an indicator of political affiliation, even in countries with deep divisions.
In Lebanon, for instance, he noted that local sports are “highly politicized,” with all the major basketball and soccer clubs having political and sectarian affiliations. But when it comes to choosing a favorite national team in the World Cup — where Lebanon has never qualified to play — fans latch on to any number of federations.
That's true across the region, where fans sporting Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo jerseys can be found from Gaza to Afghanistan.
“This is one of the few spheres where people have the liberty and freedom to choose a country that they simply like and not the country where they think there’s an obligation for them to be affiliated with it,” Reiche said.
Sewell reported from Beirut. Associated Press writers Fadi Tawil in Beirut and Joseph Krauss in Ottawa, Ontario contributed to this report.