Political games precede Iran vs US World Cup match in Qatar

Tuesday November 29 2022
USA training session at Al Gharafa SC in Doha

USA players during a training session at Al Gharafa SC in Doha on November 28, 2022 on the eve of the Qatar 2022 World Cup football match between them and Iran. PHOTO | PATRICK T. FALLON | AFP


World football governing body FIFA loathes politics in the game. But what happens when Iran meets the US amid their political tensions?

On Tuesday at 10pm EAT, we may know the impact may go beyond sport. The US team was already fielding political questions from Iranian journalists on the eve of the match at the Al Thumama Stadium in Doha, Qatar.

And coach Gregg Berhalter and team captain Tyler Adams technically became US diplomats, fending off criticism of their country.

“Why hasn’t the coach asked the US government to remove a naval ship from the sea near Iran?” posed one Iranian reporter to the US coach, to which he replied he was just a ‘soccer’ coach, not a politician.

Adams fended off the question of representing a country “that has so much discrimination against black people.” Adams, himself black, did admit the US wasn’t perfect, but said his country was continuing “to make progress every single day” and which is why he, in spite of coming from a racial minority, has had a better integration than those before him.

Iran’s football team during a training session

Iran’s football team during a training session at Al Rayyan SC in the Al Rayyan district in Doha on November 28, 2022 on the eve of the World Cup football match between them and USA. PHOTO | FADEL SENNA | AFP


Mispronouncing Iran

But Iranians weren’t done with him yet, criticising him for mispronouncing Iran. He had called it ‘aye-run’, instead of ‘ee-run’ something that miffed an Iranian reporter. He apologised for the error, which is largely a fault of American pronunciation, rather than deliberate bending of words.

By the end of the press conference, there had been little about tactics, more about politics.

On football, Iranians wanted the US thrown out of the competition for playing politics. The US football association had tweeted an image of the Iranian flag without the emblem of the Islamic republic often in the centre of the green and white banner.

“By posting a distorted image of the flag of the Islamic Republic of Iran on its official account, the US football team breached (FIFA statutes)”, declared Tasnim News, an Iranian state agency, asking FIFA to impose a minimum 10-game suspension on the US.

“Team USA should be kicked out of the World Cup 2022.”

The US team argued it was on assignment to the pitch, not play politics. But there are political attachments to it though.

Frosty relations

Iran and the US have had frosty relations for the last six decades. Iran accused the US of imposing the Shah in the 1950s. Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi would be toppled in a revolution in 1979.

In the modern times, however, the tiff has been on nuclear weapons, for which Iran has been severely sanctioned and removed from the US-controlled international banking system, making it unable to compete in the international market. Under the Barack Obama administration, the US and the European Union reached some form of deal in 2015 for Tehran to get back into the global financial system while gradually relinquishing its nuclear weapons project. Obama’s successor Donald Trump re-slapped sanctions, however, accusing Iran of falsifying its nuclear project.

“Negotiations with the US won’t solve anything unless you’re willing to give them a payoff, & not once or twice, but continually & regarding all fundamental issues,” tweeted Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei on Sunday.

“You have to cross all your red lines. Yes, then the US will leave you alone like during the previous regime.”

Never lost to US

In football speak, Iran has never lost to the US. The two sides would be meeting for only the third time in history, but only the second at the World Cup stage. Iran won 2-1 the last time they met in the World Cup in France in 1998 even though both sides were eliminated at the group stage then.

This time, there are higher stakes:  Whoever wins will qualify for the round of 16.

Meanwhile, Wales and England will be fighting it out in the Group B’s other match. Politically, Wales and England, as well as Scotland and Northern Ireland fall under the Great Britain. But beyond the Olympics, they go for each other’s necks in other tournaments.

England will need a draw to qualify but Wales know it must win with a big margin and hope for a miracle in the Iran-US game.