Protests in Iran and China. And at the World Cup

Analysis by Zachary B. Wolf, CNNUpdated: Mon, 28 Nov 2022 23:21:08 GMTSource: CNNIran threatened its own players not to protest at the World Cup, a source told CNN's Sam Kiley, and is fuming over

Analysis by Zachary B. Wolf, CNN

Updated: Mon, 28 Nov 2022 23:21:08 GMT

Source: CNN

Iran threatened its own players not to protest at the World Cup, a source told CNN's Sam Kiley, and is fuming over the US Soccer Federation's social media as protests at home continue despite violent crackdown.

Meanwhile, China is dealing with its own groundswell of protest against the country's draconian zero-Covid policy -- a movement that, like Iran's, began with young people who have grown up in repressive regimes taking to the streets.

US vs. Iran

It's foolish to view a soccer game as too much more than a soccer game, even when it features the national teams of two countries that spar over human rights, religious freedom, nuclear capabilities and pretty much everything else.

But Tuesday's must-win match for the United States against the Iran squad known as Team Melli in the group stage of the World Cup has some added geopolitical baggage.

A since-deleted graphic featured in the US Soccer Federation's social media platforms displayed an Iranian flag without the emblem of the Islamic Republic. The omission, which it said was intended to show "support for the women in Iran fighting for basic human rights," prompted Iranian state media to call for the US to be booted from the tournament. Read more about Iran's reaction.

Seeing improvement

The international dustup also briefly turned the 23-year-old captain of the US Men's National Team into a diplomat Monday.

Tyler Adams, who is from New York and plays professionally for Leeds United in the United Kingdom, was corrected by an Iranian journalist at a press conference for mispronouncing "Iran" -- "ee-RON" is correct, not "EYE-RAN" -- and then asked to explain how he can represent a country with racism and racial tension like the United States.

Here's Adams' response, after apologizing for mispronouncing "Iran." It is worth reading:

"One thing that I've learned, especially from living abroad in the past years and having to fit in in different cultures and kind of assimilate into different cultures, is that in the US, we're continuing to make progress every single day.

"Growing up for me, I grew up in a White family, and with obviously an African-American heritage and background as well. So, I had a little bit of different cultures, and I was very easily able to assimilate in different cultures. Not everyone has that ease and the ability to do that, and obviously, it takes longer to understand, and through education, I think it's super important.

"Like you just educated me now on the pronunciation of your country. So, yeah, it's a process. I think as long as you see progress, that's the most important thing."

Let's hope the US is that collected when it plays on the field Tuesday. But let's also realize that no matter what happens in the game, the "full-fledged human rights crisis" the United Nations human rights chief has described in Iran as authorities crack down on protesters will not be affected by it.

Iranians are conflicted too

While Iran's government is angry at the US Soccer Federation, it seems like a small token compared with the actions by Iran's own players, as described by the Dartmouth College professor Golnar Nikpour in a recent essay for the New York Times.

The team's players stood silent when their national anthem played before their kickoff match, which ended in a loss to England. Nikpour also noted that Team Melli's captain Ehsan Hajsafi acknowledged the families of people killed in protests during a pre-World Cup press conference.

Nikpour writes: "Against this bloody backdrop, many Iranians have said that they won't be supporting the side. Some have called for FIFA to remove the team from competition altogether, arguing that allowing Team Melli to play on the international stage affords the Islamic Republic an opportunity to whitewash its repression in the country. Others simply find it impossible to care about football while protesters are being killed."

Players threatened

It can be a dangerous proposition for soccer players in Iran to overtly protest. Kiley talked to a source involved with security for the games, who told him that after their earlier silent protest before the England game, the players were threatened that their family members would be imprisoned or tortured if they did not sing the national anthem, which they did before their win against Wales. Read Kiley's full report.

At least one professional soccer player in Iran, Voria Ghafouri, has been fired from his team and arrested for supporting protests, the latest in a string of athletes to be rebuked or arrested by the Iranian government. Read more about the regime's actions.

NPR talked to people in Iran who said they were hoping for the team to beat the US in the hopes it could bring more people to the street to protest.

Iran won its previous World Cup matchup with the US, played in 1998 in France.

If nothing else, the US matchup with Iran and its attendant symbolism will bring the international headlines into more American homes.

More recent Iran coverage: Iran's supreme leader praises paramilitary for crackdown on 'rioters' and 'thugs'

Protests spreading in China too

China does not have a soccer team at the World Cup. But it does have its own series of unprecedented protests in cities across the country.

Like the Iran protests, which were accelerated by social media, the latest movement in China appears to have sprung from videos that showed the response to a deadly apartment fire last Thursday in the far western city of Urumqi, capital of the Xinjiang region, was delayed by Covid lockdown measures.

Protests, many featuring people standing silently with blank sheets of white paper to symbolize censorship, have since grown and are about more than the Covid policy, according to CNN's Nectar Gan, Selina Wang and the Beijing bureau for the Meanwhile in China newsletter. Read their take, which includes this line: "... to many protesters, the demonstrations are about much more than Covid -- they're bringing together many liberal-minded young people whose attempts to speak out might otherwise be thwarted by strict online censorship."

Why the China protests are so significant

CNN's Jessie Yeung and the Beijing bureau explain:

Public protest is exceedingly rare in China, where the Communist Party has tightened its grip on all aspects of life, launched a sweeping crackdown on dissent, wiped out much of civil society and built a high-tech surveillance state.

The mass surveillance system is even more stringent in Xinjiang, where the Chinese government is accused of detaining up to 2 million Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in camps where former detainees have alleged they were physically and sexually abused.

They also note that China has repeatedly denied accusations of human rights abuses in the region.

Read more about how the China protests came to be and how they're spreading.