For Iranian Minnesotans, the World Cup looks different this year

Omar Elvir, Weston McKennie
U.S. midfielder Weston McKennie, #8, controls the ball in front of Honduras defenseman Omar Elvir, #19, during the second half of a FIFA World Cup qualifying soccer match Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2022, in St. Paul.
Andy Clayton-King | AP

The U.S. soccer team plays Iran Tuesday in the FIFA World Cup. For Iranian Minnesotans, the world cup looks very different this year.

As Iran is on the world’s stage for soccer, the spotlight — and criticism — on its government has grown harsher. It has been 10 weeks since a Kurdish woman died in Iranian police custody after violating religious dress code. Her death sparked intense unrest in the country and protests around the world.

Here in Minnesota, the group called Minnesota Committee in Support of a Democratic Iran have been protesting against the Iranian government. They have been at Nicollet Mall in downtown Minneapolis every Saturday since the beginning of the unrest. Host Cathy Wurzer talks to Hamid Kashani about the weight of the upcoming soccer match.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation. 

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Audio transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING] CATHY WURZER: The US men's soccer team plays Iran in the FIFA World Cup. For Iranian Minnesotans, the World Cup looks very different this year. As Iran is on the world stage for soccer, the spotlight and criticism on their government has grown harsher.

It's been 10 weeks since a Kurdish woman died in Iranian police custody after violating religious dress code. Her death sparked intense unrest in the country and protests around the world. Here in Minnesota, the group called Minnesota Committee in Support of a Democratic Iran have been protesting against the Iranian government.

They've been at Nicollet Mall in Downtown Minneapolis every Saturday since the beginning of the unrest. Hamid Kashani is a spokesperson for the group, and he joins us right now to talk about the weight of the upcoming soccer match. Hamid, thank you for being here.

HAMID KASHANI: Hello, Cathy. Good to be here.

CATHY WURZER: It's a pleasure having you here. Based on the Iranian Minnesotans you've spoken to, Hamid, what's the general feeling about this game today?

HAMID KASHANI: [SIGHS] First of all, I want to thank you for the great introduction to what has been going on in Iran. As you have stated, there has been a major uprising in the country since the death of Mahsa Amini at the hands of the Iranian regime's security forces. And during this time, hundreds of people have been killed in the streets of Iran-- and many by the government agents using live bullets.

And as such, we are a nation in mourning. And the sentiment extends to the Iranian-Americans.

[AUDIO OUT]

CATHY WURZER: Mm, it sounds as though you're breaking up a little bit, Hamid. I'm sorry about that.

HAMID KASHANI: I'm sorry.

CATHY WURZER: If you can still hear me, so because you are a nation in mourning and this is such a difficult situation, I would think, then, that those watching the game, the match, this afternoon, it would be difficult.

HAMID KASHANI: Yes, very much so. Unlike any other years in the past, there has always been a lot of enthusiasm for the Iranian National Soccer Team. This year, due to the terror that exists in the streets of Iran, there's very little enthusiasm for the team or the games amongst many Iranians. Of course, I can't generalize. But for most of us, this is a very grim time. And we have a hard time getting our arms around a team that supposedly represents the regime in Iran.

CATHY WURZER: Mm-hmm. Iran, as you know, has already played a number of matches against other countries in the World Cup. They played England last week. Why is playing the US especially politically charged?

HAMID KASHANI: Well, we've had a long history for 43 years, since the inception of the Islamic Republic, of animosity towards the United States. And this has extended in all parts of facets of life. And the current situation in Iran has caused pain and suffering amongst a lot of people and anxiety amongst most of us who in the past supported the team. And I think you've probably heard about the controversy about the flag.

CATHY WURZER: Mm-hmm.

HAMID KASHANI: And I don't know if your listeners are not aware of that. The US Soccer Federation deleted the Islamic Republic's emblem from their flag for 24 hours in support of the Iranian protesters, and we greatly appreciate that. And so that has contributed to this atmosphere.

However, the Iranian regime has done a lot to use this occasion in order to create some false sense of support among the population for the team. It uses it as a distraction towards what is going on in Iran. And I don't think the players of either teams are necessarily much involved in the politics of it.

At least from my perspective, the US team players are focused on the game itself, but I can't say the same thing about the Iranian players since they are under heavy threat by the Iranian regime.

CATHY WURZER: I was going--

HAMID KASHANI: --had a-- I'm sorry, go ahead.

CATHY WURZER: I was going to ask about that.

HAMID KASHANI: Mm-hmm.

CATHY WURZER: I'm wondering if-- they're going to be on the world stage here this afternoon, but because they are under heavy scrutiny, were you hoping to see some players show some sign of protests against the Iranian government, or is that just simply out of the question?

HAMID KASHANI: Yes, we are hoping that. However, in a just a very recent report from CNN, it's reporting that the regime's agents are intimidating the players for arrest or torture of players and their families if they do not, quote, unquote, behave. And in contrast, between the two games, the first game, the players showed some solidarity with the protesters.

They refused to sing the national anthem, and they wore a black wristband in support of the dead. But in the second game, as you may have witnessed, things have changed quite a bit. And that could be as a result of such intimidation.

CATHY WURZER: Mm. Does anything give you hope about this game? As I mentioned, because Iran's going to be on the national stage, maybe will this shift the spotlight more onto the Iranian government?

HAMID KASHANI: Yes, yes, for sure. And you know, we have had reports of the Iranian government has dispatched hundreds of its agents disguised as fans to the stadium and to Qatar to display a false narrative of support and unity. And so it would be pretty difficult to predict what is going to happen.

We are expecting protests from the Iranians that are present in the stadium, but it appears that the government of Qatar is in close collaboration with the Islamic Republic's agents in suppressing any form of protest. And so we'll just have to wait and see what transpires.

CATHY WURZER: Mm-hmm. Final question for you, Hamid. Are you going to watch the game today?

HAMID KASHANI: You know, I will watch the game, not so much to watch the match, but more about seeing what may transpire by the protesters. And hopefully, we'll see some form of support from the team as well.

CATHY WURZER: Are you hoping Iran does not move on in the World Cup?

HAMID KASHANI: You know, I-- unlike many years in the past where we all have supported the team, this year, there's very little enthusiasm for the team, as we are mourning the deaths of hundreds of protesters. And as such, I have no feeling for the team. And talking to many of my friends, unfortunately, I have to say many people wish they lose.

CATHY WURZER: All right. Hamid, I so appreciate your time and your thoughts. Thank you so much.

HAMID KASHANI: It's my pleasure. Thank you, Cathy.

CATHY WURZER: Hamid Kashani has been with us, a spokesperson for the Minnesota Committee in Support of a Democratic Iran. Now, there will be a watch party for the USA versus Iran today, 1 o'clock, at Allianz Field in Saint Paul.

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