US vs. Iran: The Most Political World Cup Gets Its Most Politically Charged Match

By the time he wrapped his press conference in Qatar on Monday, United States men’s national team coach Gregg Berhalter cut the figure of an embattled head of state, not someone trying to stave off elimination from the World Cup. On the eve of a win-or-go-home match, Berhalter and team captain Tyler Adams were grilled by Iranian journalists about US policy on immigration and the country’s military presence in the Persian Gulf. One reporter took Adams to task with a question about discrimination in America, while Berhalter was asked whether inflation might be hindering the team’s support back home.

Berhalter and Adams fielded some questions about the USMNT’s next opponent, but tactical analysis tends to get overshadowed when that opponent is Iran. In a World Cup where it has proven nearly impossible to stick to sports, Tuesday’s match between the United States and Iran is the most politically charged contest yet, the ultimate tempest in an unusually fraught tournament. Given the long-standing hostilities between the two countries, the match was always bound to invite geopolitical story lines, but now it is set against the backdrop of monthslong demonstrations in Iran triggered by the arrest and death of Kurdish Iranian woman Mahsa Amini. The Iranian government’s violent crackdown on its own people has cast a shadow over its national team’s World Cup campaign, creating a red-hot atmosphere in Qatar for both players and fans. The United States Soccer Federation waded into the political upheaval this week when it posted a now deleted graphic on social media of the Iranian flag that did not include the emblem of the Islamic Republic, a gesture meant to show solidarity with the protesters. Iran’s own soccer federation responded by calling for the US to be expelled from the World Cup. 

That set the stage for Monday’s strange press conference, where Iranian journalists repeatedly confronted Berhalter and Adams, both of whom tried gamely to steer the questions back to the game itself. “We support Iran’s people and Iran’s team,” Adams said. “But that being said, we’re laser-focused on this match, as they are as well.”

Adams was promptly scolded by a reporter from Press TV, an Iranian government-affiliated outlet, who pointed out that the 23-year-old midfielder was “pronouncing our country’s name wrong.”  

“Our country is named eee-ron, not I-ran,” the reporter said, before asking Adams, who is Black, whether he is “okay to be representing a country that has so much discrimination against Black people in his own borders.” 

Adams apologized for the mispronunciation. “There’s discrimination everywhere you go,” Adams said. “One thing that I’ve learned, especially from living abroad in the past years, and having to fit in in different cultures is that in the US, we’re continuing to make progress every single day.” Adams said his experience, growing up African American in a white family, made it easier for him to assimilate in different cultures and touted the importance of education in gaining a better understanding of others. 

“You just educated me now on the pronunciation of your country,” he continued. “So yeah, it’s a process, I think as long as you see progress, that’s the most important thing.”

Berhalter, meanwhile, stressed that neither he nor his players were aware of the US Soccer Federation’s social media post. “All we can do, on our behalf, is apologize on behalf of the players and the staff,” he said

The Iranian national team hasn’t avoided the fray either, of course. Since September, the country has been roiled by protests inspired by Amini, a 22-year-old who died in Iranian police custody after being arrested for violating the country’s law that requires head coverings for women. The Iranian government has been under international pressure for its brutal response to demonstrators; the United Nations estimates more than 14,000 have been detained for protesting, hundreds have been killed, and more are at risk of being tortured. Before their opening World Cup match against England last week, Iran’s players staged a silent protest by not singing the country’s national anthem. After reportedly receiving “fierce criticism from government officials,” the players participated in the singing of the anthem before their win on Friday against Wales, but the victory was marred by clashes outside the stadium between pro-government Iranian fans and those supporting the protests. One of Iran’s players dedicated his goal against Wales to the “suffering” people of Iran. Last Friday, the Iranian government arrested an outspoken Iranian Kurdish soccer player, who had not made the national team, on charges of “incitement against the regime.”

Even without all the political strife, Tuesday’s match would hardly be short on drama. The final group stage game for both teams, it also offers plenty of enthralling sporting subplots. With a win, the US will advance to the knockout rounds after failing to qualify for the World Cup four years ago. Iran is likewise guaranteed to go through with a victory, but a draw could also be sufficient. The United States will also be searching for its first win against Iran in what will be the third overall meeting between the two countries. 

Their first match came at the 1998 World Cup in France, where a 2–1 victory for the Iranians caused the US to crash out of the tournament. That game was just 17 years removed from the Iranian hostage crisis. “The Iranian regime hated America. That’s why that game was such a big game on the world stage, and had so much importance. Equally as much as the football piece was the political piece,” said Steve Sampson, who was US national team coach at the time.

The 1998 match was also preceded by friction between the two camps. Iran’s political leadership had apparently instructed the national team to not shake hands with the US players prior to the match, as is customary at a World Cup, but tournament organizers held firm. “They said if you don’t want to participate in the rules in a tournament, you’re free to go home,” recalled Hank Steinbrecher, then the secretary general of US Soccer.

Adams and his teammates are surely less concerned about that history than the immediate implications of Tuesday’s match. None of the players were alive when the US and Iran severed diplomatic ties in 1980, and few have memories of the 1998 match. “I wasn’t born yet,” Adams said at Monday’s press conference, “so, don’t remember it.”

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