The FIFA World Cup was rocked by heartbreaking scenes on Tuesday as Iran players begrudgingly sang their national anthem amid reported threats to their families from the government. The United States stormed into the last 16 after beating Iran 1-0 in a Group B contest shrouded by decades of enmity between the two nations.
Christian Pulisic's 38th-minute goal proved enough for the Americans to advance at the expense of their geopolitical rivals. Sergino Dest headed the ball into the path of the sprinting Pulisic, who swept it into the net to momentarily silence the raucous Iranian supporters in front of him, crashing into the outstretched goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand in the process.
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Before the action on the pitch, there were sad scenes during the national anthems. Iranian players had refused to sing before their opening match at the World Cup, before they were reportedly hit by threats of violence towards their families by the Iranian government.
Italian sports journalist Tancredi Palmeri wrote on Twitter: “Very, very sad moment. Finally at third game Iran players sung national anthem, and at the end they all bow down the head. So the rumours were true: their families were threatened of retaliation by Iranian government if they wouldn’t have sung.”
Reporter Halima Mansoor wrote: "Vast difference between the US football team belting out their national anthem and half the Iranian team just muttering through upon threat of serious pain from the Iranian regime."
The players took a brave stand against the government before their opening game against England, furious over the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini on September 16, who died in the custody of Iran's morality police in Tehran after being alleged to have breached the strict Islamic dress code. Women in Iran have led protests in defiance of the dress code, which has sparked increasingly heavy-handed crackdowns and arrests from police.
Human rights groups have reported as many as 450 people have been killed by Iranian security forces since protests began in September. Former Iranian football player and coach Ali Karimi has also called for Iranians to continue taking to the streets.
But according to CNN, the Iranian government reportedly threatened the players' families with violence if they continued their refusal to sing the anthem. On Tuesday the players obeyed the orders, mumbling their way through the song.
“Conditions in our country are not right, and our people are not happy,” Iranian team captain Ehsan Hajsafi said earlier in the tournament. Hajsafi said that the victims’ families “should know that we are with them, we support them and we sympathise with them.”
United States advance to World Cup knockouts
The US finished two points behind Group B winners England to reach the last 16 for the fifth time since 1994. Iran finished third with three points, with Wales bottom on one point after their 3-0 loss to England.
Gregg Berhalter's US team, the second youngest at this year's finals, may lack experience on the big stage but they stepped up and delivered a commanding performance when their spot at the World Cup was on the line. Knowing that only a win would keep them in the tournament, they pressed with high intensity from the first whistle - their full-backs almost playing as wingers - and chances flowed for their free-flowing attack.
Tim Weah, who spurned two glorious opportunities before Pulisic put the Americans ahead, had the ball in the net late in the first half but his strike was ruled offside. Iran, who only needed a point to advance, were largely restricted to playing on the counter and were unable to muster a credible attempt on goal until the second half.
Substitute Saman Ghoddos, who replaced Sardar Azmoun at halftime, almost pulled Iran level after meeting a superb cross from Ramin Rezaeian in the Asian side's best chance of the match but they otherwise never really troubled a dominant US.
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