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By CALDER MCHUGH
A fan reacts during the World Cup Group B match between Iran and the U.S. | Stuart Franklin/Getty Images
DIPLOMATIC SET PIECE — It’s just a game, right? Except today’s World Cup matchup between the United States and Iran became something much more than that, a testament to a global soccer tournament that has found it nearly impossible this year to divorce itself from global politics.
The result, a 1-0 victory for the U.S., brought spasms of joy and relief to American soccer fans. After a humiliating defeat to Trinidad and Tobago — ranked 99th in the world at the time — stopped the U.S. from qualifying for the 2018 World Cup, the U.S men’s team is now through the group stage and into the final 16.
In a tournament where politics have played a starring role so far, today’s match ranked as the most politically charged to date. The 2022 World Cup has already been dogged by complaints of corruption inside the tournament’s governing body, FIFA; worries about migrant deaths in host nation Qatar while the stadiums were built; and ongoing protests from multiple teams over Qatar’s anti-gay laws. Tournament favorite Brazil has wrestled with controversy surrounding superstar Neymar’s public support of far-right incumbent Jair Bolsonaro, who was defeated in Brazil’s recent presidential election.
But the contest between bitter geopolitical rivals, the United States and Iran, ratcheted up the tension. In Iran, the national team has been caught up in the recent unrest sparked by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini at the hands of the morality police.
“There are many Iranians who clearly felt embittered towards the national team for some of the signs of allegiance to the system, which are, of course, impossible to avoid for players on a team such as this,” said Suzanne Maloney, the vice president and director of the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institute, who has advised both Democratic and Republican administrations on Iran policy. “[The national team] met with the president before their departure for Doha. And those photos created some backlash.”
In Qatar, however, much of the Iranian team chose not to sing the national anthem before their first game against England last week. Afterwards, according to one unverified source from CNN, Iranian officials threatened players’ families with “violence and torture” if they joined any additional protests against the regime.
In the run-up to today’s game, however, it was the long history of acrimony between the U.S. and Iran that took center stage. Discussion about each side’s starting XI or the tactics that they would use was overshadowed by the bad blood between the two nations.
At a press conference before the match, Iranian state journalists (and technically independent but highly regime-supervised Iranian journalists) grilled U.S. captain Tyler Adams and Coach Gregg Berhalter about perceived injustices in the U.S.
Among other questions, reporters asked Berhalter why he hadn’t asked the American government to “take away its military fleet from the Persian Gulf” and why those with an Iranian passport can’t travel to the United States. Adams, after being scolded by a reporter for mispronouncing “Iran,” was asked whether he felt uncomfortable, as a Black man, representing a country with a history of discrimination against Black people.
For its part, the U.S. Soccer Federation inflamed the situation with a social media graphic — since taken down — that removed the symbol of the Islamic Republic from the Iranian flag. In response, the Iranian soccer federation called for the U.S. to be expelled from the World Cup.
In an indication of the game’s heightened stakes, a sign was placed on the North Lawn of the White House before the match, showing support for the U.S. team. President Joe Biden, not a noted soccer fan, even saw fit to comment after the victory, “USA! USA! That’s a big game, man… They did it, God love ’em.”
Politics aside, the U.S. victory served as an affirmation that their “golden generation” of young stars is real and is coming of age. For Iran, the outcome was more than just a defeat at the hands of the “Great Satan” — the nation’s very talented national team was suddenly knocked out of the World Cup at a time of turmoil at home.
“For any Iranian, the estrangement with Washington has essentially shaped their future,” said Maloney. “There’s a particular sense, I imagine a bitterness, associated with a loss.”
Welcome to POLITICO Nightly. Reach out with news, tips and ideas at [email protected]. Or contact tonight’s author at [email protected] or on Twitter at @calder_mchugh.
Supporters of Sen. Raphael Warnock hold campaign signs during a rally in Atlanta, Georgia. | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
A ‘REAL MAJORITY’ — If Raphael Warnock wins in Georgia next week, Democrats will claim a prize bigger than a single Senate seat: a real majority, writes Burgess Everett.
The Dec. 6 runoff between Warnock and GOP opponent Herschel Walker is an unusually consequential individual Senate race — determining whether the chamber would remain evenly divided, making Joe Manchin once again Democrats’ deciding vote and Republican control just a heartbeat away.
A Warnock victory would give Democrats a firmer hand on nearly everything in the Senate, from committees to the floor, while improving the party’s defense ahead of a tough map in 2024.
Georgia is a prime example of a single race’s ability to reshape the composition of the Senate, even if it doesn’t determine the majority. And as much as Democrats are thrilled to keep control of the chamber, they’ve learned over the past two years that control with 50 seats has huge limitations: Tied committees mean party-line subpoenas are impossible, nominees can take days to bring to the Senate floor and just one rogue Democrat can slam on the brakes.
With 51 seats, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer could finally employ a more efficient tactical hold on the floor, and Democratic majorities on committees could operate with more impunity in determining what nominees and legislation are sent to the full chamber.
“There’s probably a bigger difference between 50 and 51 than any other two numbers in this place,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.).
REST IN PEACE — Rep. Donald McEachin has died, his office announced on Monday. The Virginia Democrat had been battling cancer since 2013, his chief of staff, Tara Rountree, said in a statement. He was 61.
McEachin, whose district was based in Richmond, the state capital, was reelected earlier this month with 64 percent of the vote against Republican challenger Leon Benjamin. He had been first elected to Congress in 2016 after serving in both the Virginia Senate and House of Delegates, writes David Cohen.
His replacement in the heavily Democratic district will be determined by special election, at a date to be chosen by Gov. Glenn Youngkin, a Republican. In a statement Monday night, Youngkin said McEachin “worked tirelessly to improve the lives of his constituents.”
— Jury convicts Oath Keepers leader of seditious conspiracy: A jury has convicted Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes of masterminding a plot to violently subvert the transfer of power from Donald Trump to Biden, finding that he entered into a seditious conspiracy against the U.S. government. The jury also convicted Rhodes ally Kelly Meggs, leader of the Florida Oath Keepers, of seditious conspiracy. But the jury acquitted three co-defendants — Jessica Watkins, Kenneth Harrelson and Thomas Caldwell — of joining Rhodes in that conspiracy. All five, however, were convicted on additional felony charges, including obstruction of Congress.
— Mark Meadows ordered to testify in Trump investigation: South Carolina’s Supreme Court has unanimously ordered former White House Chief of staff Mark Meadows to testify to an Atlanta-area grand jury investigating Trump’s effort to overturn the election in Georgia. “We have reviewed the arguments raised by [Meadows] and find them to be manifestly without merit,” South Carolina’s Supreme Court justices wrote in a brief opinion.
— McConnell won’t say if he’d back Trump in 2024: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell today declined to address whether he would support Trump if the former president wins the Republican nomination in 2024, a notable silence amid his first public comments since Trump dined with white supremacist Nick Fuentes. “Let me just say again: There is simply no room in the Republican Party for antisemitism or white supremacy,” McConnell told reporters. “That would apply to all of the leaders in the party who will be seeking offices.”
— Twitter stops enforcing Covid-19 misinformation policy: Twitter will no longer stop users from spreading false information about the Covid-19 virus or vaccines, according to an update on its content moderation policies. It’s another major shift under new owner Elon Musk, who has pressed for “free speech” above all else on the platform. Twitter’s Covid-19 misinformation page was updated with a note saying that as of Nov. 23, the platform would no longer enforce its policies against spreading misleading information on the virus and vaccines — which had led to more than 11,000 account suspensions since 2020.
‘WEAPONIZING WINTER’ — Western officials from the NATO military alliance and beyond pledged today to help Ukraine repair and defend critical energy infrastructure amid Russia’s weaponization of cold weather and Ukrainian calls for faster assistance, writes Lili Bayer.
Moscow’s bombardment of key infrastructure across Ukraine has raised fears about how civilians will cope with freezing temperatures this winter.
But the Kremlin’s tactics have also presented a new set of challenges for Ukraine’s partners.
Many Western governments want to help Kyiv rebuild infrastructure, but there is a risk that Russia could simply target the sites a second time after they have been repaired. At the same time, some spare parts to help repair Ukrainian systems are hard to find.
And while providing Ukraine with more air defenses has become a key priority for Western governments, there is a recognition that in such a large country, not all infrastructure can be protected.
Russian President Vladimir Putin “is trying to weaponize winter — to force Ukrainians to freeze or flee,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said today.
The number of Covid cases that are being detected in France daily, good for an increase of almost 10 percent in hospitalizations and 22 percent in critical care hospitalizations. French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne said today that “the COVID epidemic is starting again” and called for preventative measures.
FOOD RULES — When new Kenyan president William Ruto took office in September, he moved quickly to undo a ban on genetically modified crops in an attempt to address food shortages in the nation. But what began as an attempt to solve one problem has morphed into many others. Kenyan farmers are frustrated and Ruto’s opponents are on the offensive, calling him a “puppet of the West”. Read Muchira Gachenge’s report for the digital outlet Semafor, which includes nuggets into how Bill Gates has gotten himself involved in the issue.
President Joe Biden meets with congressional leaders to discuss legislative priorities through the end of 2022. Biden met with (L-R) House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-K.Y.) to discuss legislative priorities for the rest of the year. | Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images
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