US Soccer shows support for Iranian women, briefly displays Iran flag without Islamic Republic emblem

DOHA, Qatar — U.S. Soccer deleted its social media posts in which it had removed the emblem of the Islamic Republic from the Iranian flag as a show of support for women in that country.

A federation spokesman said Sunday night that the decision was made after "further consultation," but insisted U.S. Soccer was not told to remove the posts. U.S. Soccer still stands by its message to "support the women in Iran and show solidarity with them," despite the removal.

The posts were created without the knowledge or approval of coach Gregg Berhalter or his players. Defender Walker Zimmerman, a member of the team's Leadership Council, said he had only learned of them before he and Tim Ream arrived for a press conference Sunday night.

"We're huge supporters of women’s rights. We didn’t know anything (about the posts) but are supporters of women’s rights. Always have been," said Zimmerman, who also was part of the USMNT's negotiating team on the historic collective bargaining agreement that gave both national teams equal pay.

The posts, and their subsequent removal, have heightened tension around a match that is already fraught. Iran was furious, and state-affiliated media said it is considering filing a complaint with FIFA.

The banner on the U.S. Men's National Soccer Team's Twitter account
The banner on the U.S. Men's National Soccer Team's Twitter account

But Zimmerman and Ream said it would not create a distraction for the team, which must beat Iran in order to advance to the knockout rounds.

"We are focused so much on Tuesday, but that doesn't mean that we aren't in support," Zimmerman said.

The controversy began Saturday, when U.S. Soccer posted a graphic of the World Cup Group B standings posted on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook on Saturday showing a plain green, white and red flag. The banner on the U.S. men's national team's Twitter page, which lists the team’s group-stage games at the tournament, was also changed to feature the Iranian flag without the Islamic Republic emblem.

After being up for 24 hours, the Twitter banner changed back Sunday afternoon to the one U.S. Soccer had been using during the tournament. The graphic was deleted about three hours later.

The changes ahead of Tuesday’s game against Iran were intentional, with a U.S. Soccer spokesperson saying it was the federation’s way of showing "support for the women in Iran fighting for basic human rights."

The official Iranian flag could still be seen elsewhere on U.S. Soccer's social media accounts, including on its main web page. The removal of the emblem was not meant to be a permanent protest, and a U.S. Soccer post Sunday night promoting the game featured the official flag.

But that isn't likely to placate Iran. Tasnim News Agency, an Iran state-affiliated media, said the Iranian Football Federation will file a complaint agains U.S. Soccer to the FIFA Ethics Committee.

"The legal advisor of the Iranian Football Federation says the sports association will file a complaint against the US Soccer Team to FIFA’s Ethics Committee after the US Men's National Soccer Team disrespected the national flag of Islamic Republic of Iran," the news agency said.

Protests have rocked Iran since the Sept. 16 death of Mahsa Amini, who had been detained by the morality police for allegedly violating the country’s conservative dress code. Though the protests began with girls and young women demanding an end to the dress code – the mandatory hijab specifically – they have since grown to include men and people of all ages calling for an end to the country’s theocratic government.

The protests have seen at least 450 people killed since they started, as well as over 18,000 arrested, according to Human Rights Activists in Iran, an advocacy group following the demonstrations.

Iran has not released casualty or arrest figures for months and alleges without providing evidence that the protests have been fomented by its enemies abroad, including the U.S.

Still, the protests continue and spilled over to the World Cup. Iranian players refused to sing the national anthem before their first game, and fans have worn shirts and displayed banners reading "Women, Life, Freedom," the rallying cry of protesters.

"They should know that we are with them," Ehsan Hajsafi, Iran’s captain, said about the protesters before the team’s opening game.

Associated Press contributed to this story.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: World Cup: US Soccer shows support for Iranian women ahead of match vs. Iran