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Political bad blood between U.S. and Iran dominates run-up to World Cup showdown

The U.S. soccer coach and players have been bombarded with politically charged questions from reporters before Tuesday’s match.
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The politics of anti-regime protests are dominating the run-up to a World Cup showdown between the U.S. and Iran, with coaches and players fielding politically charged questions before Tuesday’s match.

Given the long-running hostility between Washington and Tehran, any sporting contest between the two countries carries political overtones. But the recent wave of street protests in Iran has injected a particularly heavy dose of politics, especially after the U.S. Soccer Federation tweeted an altered Iranian flag, one without the emblem of the Islamic Republic, to show solidarity with Iranian women demonstrating against the government.

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Iran responded by demanding that the U.S. be expelled from the quadrennial tournament, arguing that the social media posts, which also showed up on Facebook and Instagram, violated the rules and regulations of FIFA, the sport’s governing body.

Tyler Adams, Ehsan Hajsafi.
Tyler Adams, Ehsan Hajsafi.AP

The U.S. federation later said that the posts were intentional but that they would now display the Iranian flag in full. The State Department said it had not coordinated in any way with the soccer federation, and the U.S. team said it was not informed of the symbolic gesture beforehand.

Beyond the political firestorm, the game itself comes with high stakes, as the young U.S. team needs a win to advance to the next stage of the tournament. But at a news conference on the eve of the match, coach Gregg Berhalter and team captain Tyler Adams faced one political question after another from Iranian journalists.

Asked about his views on U.S. restrictions on visas for Iranian citizens, Berhalter said: “I don’t know enough about politics. I’m a soccer coach.” He also was asked for his thoughts about the U.S. military’s presence in the Persian Gulf. 

Meanwhile, an Iranian reporter lectured Adams about his pronunciation of the country’s name, saying it was not “I-RAN” but “EE-RON.” 

“First of all, you say you support the Iranian people, but you’re pronouncing our country’s name wrong,” the reporter said. Then he asked Adams about how he felt about playing for a country “that has so much discrimination against Black people in its own borders.”

Adams, whose biological father is African American, apologized for his pronunciation of Iran and answered the question about race relations. 

“You know, one thing that I’ve learned, especially from living abroad in the past years and having to fit in in different cultures and kind of assimilate into different cultures, is that in the U.S., we’re continuing to make progress every single day,” said Adams, who plays for Leeds United in England’s Premier League. He added: “I think as long as you see progress, that’s the most important thing.”

When Iran’s coach, Carlos Queiroz, spoke to reporters, he also tried to steer the discussion away from politics.

“I understand your questions and the stories that you, as professionals, you need to bring,” Queiroz said. But he added: “Let’s enjoy that party. Let’s enjoy the show.”

The street protests in Iran began in September, when a 22-year-old woman from the country’s Kurdish region died in the hospital three days after she was arrested and accused of violating the country’s strict dress code. 

The protests at home have followed Iran’s soccer team throughout the World Cup, which began Nov. 20 in Qatar. At some of the games, Qatari police have confiscated T-shirts or signs supporting the protests in Iran.

Team captain Ehsan Hajsafi expressed empathy for protesting Iranians at a news conference.

“We have to accept that the situation in our country is not good and that our people are not happy, they are discontent,” Hajsafi said. “We are here, but it does not mean we should not be their voice or that we should not respect them. Whatever we have is theirs.”

Last week, Iran’s players refused to sing the country’s national anthem before their opening match against England in an apparent act of defiance against their government.

More recently, a prominent former soccer player in Iran, Voria Ghafouri, was arrested after he endorsed the protests, according to Iranian state-linked media. He was later released on bail, Iranian and other media reported.

Apart from politics, Jürgen Klinsmann, the former German soccer star who was the U.S. men’s coach in the 2014 World Cup, infuriated Iran with a comment last week about its soccer “culture,” suggesting Iranian players use tricks to sway referees.

“This is just part of their culture. That’s how they play. They work the referee. You saw the bench always jumping up, always working the linesman, constantly in their ears. They’re constantly in your face,” Klinsmann, a BBC commentator, said after Iran defeated Wales 2-0 on Friday.

The U.S. men’s team last faced Iran in a World Cup in 1998, and the Americans lost 2-1 in a bitter defeat that saw jubilant Iranian fans pour into the streets — in stark contrast to the mood in Iran ahead of the current match, which has been dampened by the protests and the regime’s violent crackdown. Iranians have burned posters promoting the national team even as its members have signaled support for the protesters, and there were no big crowds after Iran’s victory over Wales in their last match. 

Berhalter played for the U.S. team in the last game, which was also upstaged by political tensions between the two countries. The coach at the time, Steve Sampson, said last week it was difficult to concentrate on the game at hand because of the politics swirling around it. 

“It was a challenge to keep the players focused,” Sampson said.

In a departure from protocol, the two teams posed for a photo together before the game, and the Iranian side handed over white roses in a gesture of peace. 

But in retrospect, Sampson said, he wished he had not agreed to the photo session.

“I’ve reflected on this for years,” Sampson said. “If I had to do it all over again, I would not have allowed the exchange of roses or the joint picture.”