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Opinion I’m Team USA. But it’s more important Iran advances in the World Cup.

American and Iranian players pose for a group photo before their 1998 World Cup match in Lyon, France. Iran upset the Americans, 2-1, for its first World Cup win, eliminating the United States in the group stage. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)

I always root for Team USA in any international sporting event. But when it comes to our World Cup match Tuesday against Iran, I think it’s more important our opponents make it to the next round.

Why?

The people of Iran are months into nationwide protests demanding fundamental change to the way their country is ruled. At its heart, what’s happening in Iran is a freedom and equality movement. Protesters’ goals are in line with U.S. ideals and liberal values generally, and their success would be a major blow to the worldwide authoritarian wave of recent years. This moment deserves attention, and no global stage is bigger than the World Cup. Billions will be watching. The longer Iran stays in, the more recognition its people and their movement will receive.

Iran and the United States have faced each other in the World Cup only once before, and more than two decades later, the impact is still felt. I remember watching the 1998 match at the Los Angeles home of an Iranian American friend of my older brother. I was 22, and it was also the first time I had ever felt something like pride for my heritage.

Moments before the match, Iran’s players offered their American counterparts flowers. It was a perfect example of the Iranian people’s hospitality and their appreciation for the splendor of nature. It must have been an incredibly disarming moment for the United States men’s national team. Iranians all over the globe, though, recognized the act as a sign of who we really are. Suddenly, the world was seeing it, too.

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Iran won the game, 2-1.

Iran’s appearance at the most recent World Cup also came at a critical moment: The 2018 tournament was held a little over a month after President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the nuclear deal with the Islamic republic. At the time, I wrote that every match Iran competed in presented an opportunity to talk about the difficult conditions facing the people of that country, from their devastated economy to the regime’s denial of basic rights. It’s the same argument this time, only with exponentially higher stakes.

Should this movement in Iran dissipate without real alterations to the ruling system, the cost for participants will be tragic. At least 450 people, including dozens of children, have already been killed, and thousands more have been arrested and imprisoned. Some protesters have already been sentenced to death for simply exercising their universal right to peacefully assemble.

Look at the intense pressure the soccer team itself is under, from all sides. It’s clear players will face repercussions when they return to Iran for any hint that they side with protesters; last week, former national team star Voria Ghafouri was arrested in Iran on charges of propaganda against the regime and damaging the team’s image for making comments critical of the regime.

Yet the team’s current players are still taking those risks.

Ahead of their first game in the cup, the team refused to sing the Islamic republic’s national anthem. That followed team captain Ehsan Hajsafi’s comments that the team is “standing beside” the “grieving families of Iran.” It’s difficult to misinterpret the sentiment of Ramin Rezaeian, who dedicated his goal in Friday’s 2-0 victory over Wales to the suffering people of his homeland.

Those calling on social media for a boycott of Iran’s team say the players haven’t been sufficiently supportive of the protests and that they are owned and operated by the regime. But the team’s words and actions in Qatar tell a different story. The best thing Iranians — and the free world — can do is wish this team success.

Nearly a quarter of a century after the first World Cup meeting of the Iranian and American teams, so much has changed in both countries and the world, but the enmity between the two governments remains frozen in time, and Americans’ understanding of Iran and its people has progressed very little.

A reciprocal gesture of kindness from the United States to match the 1998 Iranians’ white flowers would go a long way. U.S. Soccer stripping the regime’s symbol from the Iranian flag on its social media is meaningful, too. But if the U.S. team itself goes even further before the game and unmistakably voices its support for the equality movement for women, ethnic minorities and children — as the Biden administration surely hopes it will — that would be historic.

And should Iran win, it would advance to the next round of the contest for the first time, capturing even more of the global spotlight for its admirable freedom fighters. In exchange, the United States men’s national team would be eliminated. That would be a blow for this fan, but some things are even more important than soccer.

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