US Soccer's biggest misstep with Iran support was mistaking the World Cup for a bubble | Opinion

DOHA, Qatar — Sports aren’t played in a bubble.

That’s what U.S. Soccer got right, and wrong, with its brief attempt to show support for women in Iran by removing the Islamic Republic emblem from the official flag on some social media posts, and the subsequent decision Sunday to delete them.

A young woman in Iran is dead because the theocratic regime, and the people who enforce its rules, don’t see women as fully human. The country has been in flames for two months now because people are chafing at their lack of freedoms. Hundreds of men, women and children have been beaten, shot at, arrested and even killed for having the audacity to call for change.

All of that is antithetical to who we are as Americans and, given the turmoil in Iran has already become a flashpoint at this World Cup, it was bound to become an issue ahead of the USMNT’s game against Iran on Tuesday. For U.S. Soccer to ignore it would have been naïve and, given the willingness of the men’s and women’s teams to take public stances on thorny issues, highly disappointing.

A woman holds up a sign reading Mahsa Amini, the name of a woman who died while in police custody in Iran at the age of 22, during a protest after the World Cup Group B soccer match between Wales and Iran.
A woman holds up a sign reading Mahsa Amini, the name of a woman who died while in police custody in Iran at the age of 22, during a protest after the World Cup Group B soccer match between Wales and Iran.

U.S. Soccer made its statement in a pair of social media posts. It removed the emblem of the Islamic Republic from the Iranian flag on a graphic showing the Group B standings that it posted to Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. The banner on the U.S. men’s Twitter page showing the group-stage matches featured the same plain green, white and red flag.

The posts, a federation spokesman said, were meant to be a show of “support for the women in Iran fighting for basic human rights.”

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After decades of watching U.S. Soccer stonewall its players’ efforts for equality and social justice, it was encouraging to see the federation lean so fully into the fight for good.

But it had to know it was going to get pushback.

To take a stand at this World Cup has become an act of subversiveness. No matter how subtle the federation’s gesture was – and given the posts went unnoticed for more than 12 hours, it was very subtle – someone was eventually going to catch on and Iran was going to be furious.

It is impossible to separate Tuesday’s game from the longstanding tensions between the countries, and anything and everything related to it is going to be overanalyzed for slights, insults and signs of disrespect. Even the order of questions at the U.S. men’s news conference Sunday night became a point of contention, with Iranian journalists claiming they weren’t being “respected” because they weren’t called on quickly enough.

U.S. Soccer needed a better plan than simply taking down the posts and leaving players Walker Zimmerman and Tim Ream to answer for it when the players and coach Gregg Berhalter weren’t even aware of what had happened.

“We’re huge supporters of women’s rights. We didn’t know anything (about the posts) but we are supporters of women’s rights and always have been,” said Zimmerman, who is a member of the USMNT’s Leadership Council and was heavily involved in the negotiations on the historic collective bargaining agreement that pays both the men’s and women’s teams equally.

“We are focused so much on Tuesday, but it doesn’t mean we aren’t in support,” he added.

If U.S. Soccer was concerned about the blowback, it should have stayed quiet. Plenty of other teams have had no problems doing that at this World Cup. But if it wanted to take a stand, it needed to fully commit.

By trying to do both, by saying something and then walking it back, U.S. Soccer diminished the value of its message and left its players exposed. Berhalter and his team had nothing to do with the creation of the posts, but they will be the ones who get the questions.

The criticisms, too, should the Americans lose to Iran.

“We’re all human. We understand there are things going on that are out of our control,” Ream said.

That’s just life. The best you can do is fight for good and, when you know you’re right, don’t back down. By doing the first but not the second, U.S. Soccer finds itself in a controversy of its own making.

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: US Soccer learns if you take a stand, you better be ready to defend it