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Iran vs USA: Why is it hard to focus only on football?

Iran vs USA: Why is it hard to focus only on football?

The stakes for what will happen after tonight's game are very high as a win will catapult Iran into the knockout stage for the first time in history.

There is survival at stake. But for most of the millions of people tuning in across Iran, it will be hard to focus solely on football. The reason is not only the strained political relations between the two countries.

Both teams last met during the 1998 World Cup in France. It was the first match they played against each other since Tehran and Washington cut ties after Iran's 1979 revolution.

But any worries about the tensions on the pitch were dispelled as Iranian players handed bouquets of white roses to their opponents and both sides posed for a group photo. There were celebrations in the streets of Tehran when goals from Hamid Estili and Mehdi Mahdavikia secured a 2-1 victory. This was also Iran's first win in a World Cup match.

On Friday, Iran beat Wales in dramatic fashion. It gave the players a much-needed boost after suffering a 6-2 defeat in their opening match against England.

A win over the USA would help the team advance to the knockouts for the first time ever. But players and managers know it's not just about football.

Iran remains gripped by protests that began more than 70 days ago, during which more than 400 people, including more than 60 children, have been killed, according to human rights organizations. Iranian authorities have not released official figures.

The protests began after 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died after she was arrested by the country's moral police on suspicion of not complying with a mandatory dress code. The protests that still bear her name and the slogan "woman, life, freedom" have also entered the World Cup.

Captain Ehsan Hajisafi implicitly expressed solidarity with the protests during a press conference in Doha last week. The players refused to sing along to the national anthem before the opening match against England. But their rhetoric has been focused solely on football since then, and they sang the anthem before the Wales game.

There have been calls for street protests in Iran after the England match. But the demonstrations were largely limited amid a heavy presence by security forces and a major slowdown in internet connections that came on top of significant internet restrictions that have been in place since the protests began.

After the victory against Wales, there were celebrations in the streets supported and encouraged by the security forces.

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