José Mourinho maintains that soccer games start to be played the day before the match, in the press room, and that was where the Qatar World Cup fixture between Iran and the United States began on Monday night, at least for the Iranian journalists present. This contest, as was the case in France at the 1998 World Cup, is the “mother of all games.”
When Iran’s coach Carlos Queiroz and forward Karim Ansarifard entered the room, some of the Iranian reporters gave them a minute’s applause. They have been complaining for days about the questions Queiroz and his players have been fielding about the protests sweeping Iran following the death of Mahsa Amini and repression in the country. Describing it as unwarranted meddling, on Monday they had prepared a counter-attack.
There was already tension surrounding the Iranian camp last week, but on Sunday it flared up further still after a social media post by the US Soccer Federation (USSF), which featured an altered version of the Iranian flag in which a symbol associated with Iran’s government and inscriptions referring to Allah – added following the 1979 revolution – had been removed. The official flag of the Islamic Republic of Iran was later added to the post.
By posting a distorted image of the flag of the Islamic Republic of #Iran on its official account, the #US football team breached the @FIFAcom charter, for which a 10-game suspension is the appropriate penalty.— Tasnim News Agency (@Tasnimnews_EN) November 27, 2022
Team #USA should be kicked out of the #WorldCup2022 pic.twitter.com/c8I4i4z3Tv
The USSF state that it had altered the flag temporarily to “show support for the women in Iran fighting for basic human rights.” The Iranian Football Federation lodged an official complaint with FIFA and journalists on Monday grilled US coach Gregg Berhalter, stating that removing the “sacred words” from the Iranian flag was a very serious affront.
Berhalter was also asked if he had requested his government withdraw a US Navy vessel from near Iranian waters; if he was aware that Iranian passport holders cannot enter the US, but Americans are allowed to travel to Iran; whether he felt the United States men’s national soccer team (USMNT) had the support of the American public given the economic crisis in the country; and if he thought that former Germany international Jürgen Klinsmann, now a member of FIFA’s technical study group, had waged a psychological war against Iran in coordination with the British media after Klinsmann criticized the attitude of Iran’s players toward the referee during their 2-0 victory over Wales: “This is not by coincidence. This is all purposely. That’s how they play it and they work the referee. That’s their culture and that’s their way of doing it and that’s why Carlos Queiroz, he fits really well in the Iranian national team,” Klinsmann said.
US captain Tyler Adams was also given a dressing down for mispronouncing Iran, for which he apologized, and asked if it was possible for him to be proud to represent a country with serious racism issues. Both Berhalter and Adams focused instead on the importance of the match, with both countries still in the running to secure a place in the last 16 at the World Cup – whichever side wins will go through to the knock-out stages. The US coach explained that his players and staff had not been aware of the initiative – “it’s not something that we were a part of” – but also said their “thoughts are with the Iranian people, the whole country, the whole team, everyone.”
Queiroz also chose to stick to the soccer during his press conference, talking about the difficulty of facing the USMNT and his weariness over questions that were not related to sport. “Those events that are surrounding this World Cup, I hope will be a good lesson for all of us in the future: that in the next event, we learn that our mission here is to create entertainment. If you talk about human rights, racism, kids that die in schools in shootings, we feel solidarity with all those causes. But here, our mission is to bring the smiles for the people at least for 90 minutes,” the Portuguese tactician said, to another round of applause from reporters.
Any tension surrounding Tuesday’s game pales in comparison to the meeting in 1998, when the hostage crisis and its subsequent diplomatic ramifications were still fresh in many minds. Iran and the US have not had formal diplomatic relations since 1980, but that afternoon in the Stade de Gerland in Lyon, Iran’s players presented their US opponents with white roses as a sign of peace and the two sides were photographed together. “We did more in 90 minutes than the politicians did in 20 years,” noted US defender Jeff Agoos.