USA versus Iran is more than just a game

Clouded in a haze of human rights turmoil, the upcoming match between the U.S. Men’s National Team and Iran in the final match of the Group stage at the 2022 FIFA World Cup has become both a showcase for new talent from both sides, and a hotbed of political grievances that have been simmering just below the veil of a whitewashed surface for years.

For the men of both teams, it does a disservice to deny them the credit for their accomplishments, their journeys, their work. For their fan bases, for their nations and their families, it discredits everyone to ignore the underlying realities of human rights violations that extend off the pitch. The best of this global game is when both inner and outer worlds are in balance and harmony. But humans are masters of looking in the other direction when something makes us uncomfortable.

Now we must uncover our eyes from the political tornado encircling this Tuesday’s match as both teams face potential elimination. Of course, there is no keeping politics out of soccer this World Cup.

In spite of the obvious differences between the freedoms of citizens in the two nations, both have some things in common – to varying degrees, both their teams are underdogs/under-performers, and, both sets of citizens are political activists.

The United States was able to politicize wearing masks during a pandemic. Iran, where youth have no safe space to express viewpoints, is a nation where the soccer pitch transforms into a platform for expression. Inevitably, sports are political. When the players of Iran and the U.S. hit the ground running, the world will be watching and not just because of the game on the pitch.

The State of the USMNT:

The U.S. are currently in third place of Group B behind England and Wales, after tying in both their first two matches, they need to rally for a win against Iran to advance to the round of 16. Iran faces less pressure in some ways – a win or a tie (if Wales beats England) will push them to the next round. This is the second time the two have faced each other in competitive play. Iran and the USA first met at the 1998 World Cup and the Iranians claimed 2-1 victory at the Stade Gerland in Lyon amidst decades of tension between the two nations. The teams also met in a January 16, 2000 friendly at the Rose Bowl where they played to a draw in which Claudio Reyna, father of Gio Reyna, captained the USMNT.

Although the U.S. showed their abilities to block No. 3 ranked Three Lions from scoring, in total, they’ve only managed one goal of their own during their two matches. Capitalizing on a balanced midfield needs to translate into more goal-finishing opportunities in order to defeat Iran. In spite of outshooting them, England had the better quality of shots with 3 of 8 on target. The U.S. had 2 weak shots on goal out of 10 attempts (4 came from Christian Pulisic).

Mired in rumor, lies what could be the answer to a weak attack for the Americans. Reyna, an emotional and high-intensity playmaker for Borussia Dortmund, has yet to provide quality minutes for the U.S. MNT in Qatar. And, that has fueled many rumors of coaching error and conflict between the 20-year-old attacking midfielder and Gregg Belhalter. Coming on as a sub in the 83rd minute in the match against England, and not playing at all against Wales, was likely Berhalter’s calculated decision either based on Reyna’s injury-prone status rather than something more sinister as Eric Wynalda suggested.

Giving the nod to Haji Wright as a starter against England after allocating him as a sub in the match against Wales likely means Berhalter, following his pattern,­ will now give Reyna the start and also test Jesús Ferreira (yet to debut in Qatar) with some minutes as well. Berhalter is a steady hand, not at all the type of coach to over-manage a game. Wynalda’s point about the game rewarding bravery and punishing cowardice does hold true, but he also misses the mark by not mentioning intelligence and strategy. All play a role. And, likely, after the 0-0 draw against England, Berhalter and his team have grown six inches taller – more brave but also mindful of the growth they need to demonstrate.

Speaking after the draw, Tyler Adams offered his thoughts on the trajectory of the team, “It’s been a three-year journey full of ups and downs. But we can’t be too happy with ourselves – we’ve got to find the negatives and iron them out.” A healthy and rested Reyna will provide the much needed break for Pulisic who himself registered 4 efforts at goal in their last match as well as the finesse in finishing that the U.S. has been unable to find so far.

Iran’s Team:

While the U.S. have reached the Group of 16 four times since 1990, Team Melli are one match away from their first. And, whereas the USMNT have yet to log their first win in Qatar, Iran already have scored four goals and tasted victory by defeating Wales. In the first two matches, Iran completely surrendered possession to the opponent (19% against England; 33% against Wales) but managed to generate a decent number of chances (8 against England; 21 against Wales).

Portuguese coach, Carlos Queiroz, replaced Dragan Skočić in September, after previously managing the team from 2011 through 2019, leading them in the 2014 and 2018 World Cups, but exiting in the group stage. Breaking from tradition, Queiroz named a 25-player roster rather than 26 and brought four goalkeepers instead of the typical 3. His side boasts 16 players who compete in Belgium, Croatia, Cyprus, Denmark, England, Greece, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, and Qatar. Their tactics shifted over the last two matches, but they have been noted to defend wide and assert themselves in vertical attacks. Most recently against Wales they isolated a fullback from the run of play using him instead to mark the opposing winger.

Soccer and Politics – Likely Bedfellows:

“I envision the game being hotly contested for the fact that both teams want to advance to the next round – not because of politics or because of relations between our countries.” – Gregg Berhalter.

Just hours after this statement, the U.S. Soccer Federation and Iran came to blows when U.S. Soccer posted across their social media platforms an image of the Iranian national flag without the Islamic Republic emblem in the middle, asserting that it was done purposefully to support the protests in Iran. Iran, retaliated by filing an official complaint with FIFA requesting the U.S. be removed from tournament.

“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,” Iran state-aligned Tasnim news agency tweeted on Sunday. “Team #USA should be kicked out of the #WorldCup2022

Sunday afternoon, the flag with the emblem had been restored in the Twitter banner and the corresponding Facebook and Instagram posts had been removed. The move by the U.S. Soccer Federation was the second in a series of clashes outside the realm of the actual game.

On Friday, after Iran’s defeat over Wales, former U.S. MNT coach Jurgen Klinsmann put forth his point of view about the team and the win on a BBC broadcast.

“This is not by coincidence. This is all purposely. This is just part of their culture. That’s how they play it and they work the referee. You saw the bench always jumping off, always working the fourth, the linesmen and the fourth referee on the sideline, constantly in their ears. They’re constantly in your face on the field. This is their culture and they kind of make you lose your focus and make you lose your concentration and what’s really important to you.”

Queiroz responded to Klinsmann in a series of tweets. “No matter how much I can respect what you did inside the pitch, those remarks about Iran Culture, Iran National Team and my Players are a disgrace to Football. Nobody can hurt our integrity if it is not at our level, of course,” he wrote.

The Iranian Football Federation further requested an official apology from Klinsmann and that he resign from his position with FIFA as a Technical Study Group member. There are clearly two matches – the one on the pitch and one of propaganda.

A Little Perspective:

The Iranian team’s defeat of the U.S. in 1998 sparked a source of commonality between the Iranian diaspora and Iranians inside Iran. Their love of soccer somehow transcended politics. Yet for Iranians, soccer and politics (specifically gender politics) have been intertwined for over decades. In 2019, Sahar Khodavari was charged with “openly committing a sinful act” by dressing as a man (without a hijab) to try to enter a stadium to watch Esteghlal play. She set herself on fire. This year marked the first time in 40 years that women were permitted to watch a domestic game.

The USSF is no stranger to political controversy surrounding human rights. In 2017, five months after Megan Rapinoe first took a knee during the Star-Spangled Banner in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick, they passed Policy 604-1 under which all national team players were required to stand respectfully during the playing of the national anthem at all U.S. Soccer events. Three years later, after Cindy Parlow Cone became USSF President, amid a landscape of protests against police brutality and racial injustice that was spreading through the U.S. like wildfire after the killing of George Floyd, that rule was repealed.

Ultimately, the battle between these nations for points and a chance to play in the knockout round of the 2022 FIFA World Cup is more than just about the sport. It is a battle to win hearts and minds of people. For Iran, a win would help build a bridge between their citizens and the world, allow for continued visibility of their suffering during the tournament, and lead to more mainstream exposure of the human rights violations and countless killings by their government. For the U.S., a victory secures greater respect for one of the next hosts of the World Cup, evidence that their efforts to evolve into a global leader for soccer have been fruitful, and fosters more support within the nation.  

For both countries, the leadup to the match on Tuesday has been a reminder of what makes them so different. On Tuesday, the match will serve as a reminder of what makes them similar. “I’ve played in three different countries, and I coached in Sweden, and the thing about soccer is you meet so many different people from all around the world, and you’re united by a common love of the sport,” Berhalter concludes.

“I hope that [my team] will get the result that gives us a passport for the second round,” Queiroz added. Interesting word to use. Read into it or don’t. But as you watch on Tuesday, don’t look away from the sights of Iranian and U.S. fans holding signs bearing the name of Mahsa Amini. No matter what the result of the match is, remember for many, there is much more at stake than a game.

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