Picking a side in a Lakers-Celtics game? Easy. Root for the good guys, as geography determines it.
Iran-United States? That’s more complicated for families like Quemars Ahmed’s.
Iran-England? Even that was fraught during this World Cup.
Ahmed, 30, is a lawyer from La Cañada Flintridge who was heading home after having spent 10 days in Qatar with his mother, Katia, a Pasadena Unified School District wellness coordinator who emigrated from Iran 34 years ago following the revolution there.
I met Quemars in 2017, for a profile when he became the first Muslim to serve as editor-in-chief of the UCLA Law Review – shortly after President Trump signed an executive order banning travel to the United States from seven predominantly Muslim countries, including Iran.
He’s one of those people who’s way smarter than me but also kind enough not to make me feel dumb. A politically minded sports junkie who worked on Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign and put up a valiant effort as a 2020 Jeopardy contestant.
When I realized he was in Qatar to see the world’s greatest tournament in person, I wanted to hear from him: Who would he be rooting for when Iran and the United States met in a high-stakes match to determine who would advance out of Group B and into the Round of 16?
Moreover, how were the anti-regime protests raging in Iran affecting his feelings about that country’s soccer team?
First of all, in a head-to-head matchup, Quemars is always rooting for the USA. Even back in 2000, when Iran and the United States met at the Rose Bowl, he was the only member of his family rooting for the home team.
“A far cry from today’s game,” Ahmed said by phone Tuesday from Doha.
That’s because, this time, his mom was also among the ardent American supporters at an electric Al-Thumama Stadium.
Rocking red, white and blue, Katia and Quemars remained on their feet for the duration of the Americans’ 1-0 victory, thrilled to witness the United States earn a spot in the knockout round against the Netherlands on Saturday.
And hopeful, in Katia’s case, that attention now can be trained fully on the uprising in Iran.
Protests have continued since 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died in police custody in September, after she was arrested by Iran’s so-called guidance patrol for how she was wearing her hijab, an incident that sparked an ongoing push for the overthrow of Iran’s theocracy.
The authorities there have responded violently, admitting that more than 300 people have been killed in the unrest – though that estimate is significantly lower than the toll reported by the U.S.-based Human Rights Activists in Iran, which says that 451 protesters and 60 members of security forces have been killed while more than 18,000 people have been detained.
Quemars said his mom has been following it all closely, in a manner made more visceral by social media channels that deliver images from on the ground with an intensity that wasn’t previously possible.
So when they attended Iran’s first match against England (a 6-2 loss) on Nov. 21, Quemars and Katia wore T-shirts supporting the protesters – “Women, Life, Freedom” Quemars’ read – and actually were allowed to keep them on for the whole match. So were all the others who showed up wearing similarly themed attire, from what he could tell.
“You could see: There’s a sizable group of the people here, who are Iranian, and who are doing something to speak out against the regime,” said Quemars, who noted that Iranian fans around them remained muted in their support during that match, all of them probably going through the same internal push-and-pull as he and his mom – and as others in Iran, including many who were rooting for the United States on Tuesday, according to reports.
Don’t let anyone tell you the Iranian people hate America. It’s just the regime.
The people of Tehran’s Eram region are happy about the loss of the Iranian team to the United States
People are heard shouting “America, America.” https://t.co/NSHdgSVVTd
— Nazanin Boniadi (@NazaninBoniadi) November 29, 2022
“It was very complicated emotions,” Quemars explained. “Because it’s like, how can you? How can you cheer for them when they’re structurally paid for by the regime and wearing the flag of the regime, and with the political leanings of individual players, most of them against the regime but some of them not, you know? And just the visual element of standing up and cheering for that team?
“We definitely felt better being able to have our protest clothes on. And it probably took the first half for us to feel comfortable rooting for Iran – and by that point, the game was over (because England was leading 3-0).”
He wasn’t able to keep those protest clothes for long, made to ditch the shirt when he arrived for the United States’ match against Wales later that day.
“It was a huge debate with security and eventually, the head boss said, ‘No, it’s not allowed,’” said Quemars, who had to throw the shirt in the trash in front of that official.
The members of the Iranian team encountered their own crackdown, of course. After standing silently during their national anthem before that match against England, they reportedly were threatened and told that if they didn’t sing before their next match, their family members would be imprisoned or tortured. In the two matches that followed, most sang.
“Politically, it became a mess,” said Quemars, with a nod also to complaints leveled by Iran’s coach, Carlos Queiroz, against former U.S. men’s soccer team coach Jurgen Klinsmann; controversy over the USMNT’s Twitter page using an altered image of the Iranian flag meant to support Iranian dissidents; and the news conference in which combative Iranian reporters asked pointed questions of U.S. midfielder Tyler Adams and his coach, Gregg Berhalter.
USMNT captain Tyler Adams responded to an Iranian reporter’s question on racial discrimination and civil rights in America and apologized for mispronouncing Iran
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) November 29, 2022
“That press conference was hilarious, and also very predictable because they’re not asking the questions expecting these people to give an answer, but so they can have sound to feed into the propaganda machine,” Quemars said. “I was worried that it would affect the U.S. team because this is a new arena for them, dealing with this.”
But in a competitive match, the United States found a way through the Iranian defense, which needed only a tie to advance, thanks to a goal just before halftime from Christian Pulisic, who was hurt on the play.
In the stands, the atmosphere matched the intensity on the pitch, Quemars said.
“Absolutely electric,” he said. “The Iranian fans, the American fans, the tension and the noise. This was the first one where no one sat down. Like there were always matches where supporter sections were standing, but here every U.S. supporter that I could see was standing the whole time, and most of the Iranian supporters. It was just everything it meant to both fan bases.”
That’s the thing about the World Cup. Allegiances are deep, matters of family and heritage and national pride – which can make for a complicated concoction.
“You don’t have to worry about players being traded, and it’s not corporate either, you’re not rooting for a franchise, you’re rooting for your nation,” Quemars said. “And so there’s this level of attachment that it’s harder to find in other sports.
“But it also complicates things when you’re rooting for a nation, because how much of that nation are you rooting for?
“It’s been such a conflicting World Cup from the very beginning,” he added, noting also that he’s given a lot of thought to Qatar’s human rights shortcomings and how, still, he saw signs of progress stemming from the country having opened itself to the world.
“I think it’s only fitting that for us it ends with this match, testing out that theme.”