The U.S. men’s soccer team faces its make-or-break World Cup match Tuesday against Iran. If it wins, it advances to the next stage – and if it loses, it’s heading home.
But despite needing to focus on the most important game this team of players has ever faced, the lead-up has been fraught with political drama. On Monday, Team USA’s players sat through a surreal and politically charged news conference, during which they were bombarded with questions and criticism of their country.
In response to months of violent crackdowns on anti-government protests in Iran, the U.S. Soccer Federation over the weekend briefly made an alteration in its social media posts, showing the Iranian flag without its emblem of the Islamic Republic. The change, the federation said, was made for 24 hours to show support for women protesting for their rights in Iran.
Iranian media reacted swiftly, with state media agency Tasnim calling for the U.S. team to be kicked out of the tournament.
Iran’s flag was changed to its current version in 1980, after the 1979 Islamic Revolution ushered in a theocracy led by conservative Muslim clerics. The U.S. and Iran have been ideological foes with severed diplomatic ties since then.
While many Iranians and activists supportive of the protesters welcomed the U.S. Soccer Federation’s move, saying they associate the Islamic Republic’s emblem with oppression and torture, Iran’s state media slammed it, accusing the U.S. of hypocrisy and grilling the team’s players with political questions during the Monday press event.
A reporter from Iran’s state-controlled Press TV criticized U.S. team captain Tyler Adams for mispronouncing Iran, and asked him how he felt about representing a country that the reporter described as being rife with racial discrimination. Adams is mixed race.
“Are you OK to be representing your country that has so much discrimination against Black people in its own borders?” the Press TV reporter asked.
“My apologies on the mispronunciation of your country,” Adams responded. “That being said, there’s discrimination everywhere you go … in the U.S. we’re continuing to make progress every single day … as long as you make progress that’s the most important thing.”
Another Iranian state media reporter asked U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter: “What percentage of the world’s population will be happy if Iran wins this match [versus the U.S. team]?”
Berhalter replied, “For us it’s a soccer game against a good team — it’s not much more than that.”
The coach and players seemed intent on avoiding getting into political topics and keeping the discussion on the game, but their efforts were repeatedly ignored.
Iranian coach Carlos Queiroz similarly has tried to keep his comments soccer-focused, despite pointed questions from reporters from various nations, including one on whether the flag drama would serve as motivation for his team.
“If after 42 years in this game as a coach, I still believe I can win games with those mental games, I think I’ve learned nothing about the game,” Queiroz, a Portuguese national, said. “This is not the case.”
Players quizzed on U.S. military policy
The political questions continued, however, even going as far as geopolitics and the U.S. military.
One of the Iranian reporters asked Berhalter: “Sport is something that should bring nations closer together and you are a sportsperson. Why is it that you should not ask your government to take away its military fleet from the Persian Gulf?”
The U.S. team coach replied: “I agree, sport is something that should bring countries together … you get to compete as brothers.”
Berhalter was also asked about strict U.S. laws on visas for Iranian nationals, to which he replied: “I don’t know enough about politics, I’m a soccer coach. I’m not well versed on international politics so I can’t comment on that.”
U.S. team apologizes for Iranian flag change, says it was oblivious
The U.S. team’s coach also apologized for the Iranian flag change, saying that he and his players had no role in the decision and knew nothing about it.
“Sometimes things are out of our control,” Berhalter said. “We’re not focused on those outside things and all we can do is apologize on behalf of the players and the staff, but it’s not something that we were a part of.”
“We had no idea what U.S. Soccer put out. The staff, the players, we had no idea. For us our focus is on this match. … Of course our thoughts are with the Iranian people, the whole country, and everyone,” he added.
U.S. defender Tim Ream said during the conference, “We support women’s rights, and what we’re doing as a team is supporting that while also trying to prepare for the biggest game that this squad has had to date.”
Protests have taken place all over Iran since mid-September, triggered by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in police custody. Amini, a Kurdish Iranian woman, was arrested for allegedly breaking Iran’s strict rules on wearing the hijab, the Islamic head covering for women.
Many Iran analysts are calling the uprising the biggest challenge to the Islamic Republic in decades. Ahead of its first World Cup match on Nov. 21, which was against England, the Iranian team refused to sing their national anthem, standing in stoic silence instead. The team did sing the anthem for their second match on Friday, but reports have emerged that they were forced to do so under threat.
The coaches of both teams made references to the last time the U.S. and Iran competed on a World Cup stage, which was in 1998 in France. Iran beat the U.S. 2-1 in a tough game that was dubbed at the time “the mother of all football matches.” The coaches each complimented the other team’s performance.
Iran’s team coach, Queiroz, also said positive things about the U.S. squad’s performance so far in Qatar, where it tied with both Wales and England. He said that the American team had made a “jump from soccer to football.”
“We play a very, very good team, very well organized with the same dream and same goal in mind,” Queiroz said.
“I hope tomorrow my boys will be able to put together their heads, their souls, their skills and the will to win. I hope that they will get the result that gives us a passport for the second round.”
Berhalter similarly praised the Iranian team’s 1998 performance. “Iran wanted to win the game with everything — they played really committed, really focused from the first whistle. For us to win the game tomorrow that’s going to have to be the mindset of our group. … We don’t want to make the mistakes of the past.”
As for Tuesday’s match, which begins at 2 p.m. ET, Berhalter said: “We win or we’re out of the World Cup. Anytime you’re in a World Cup and you get to go into the last group game in control of your own destiny, that’s a pretty good thing.”