US, Iran test soccer skills and diplomacy in World Cup

NEW YORK (NewsNation) — The United States and Iran will face off at the 2022 World Cup, but it comes as there’s not only everything to play for on the field, there are growing diplomatic woes between the two countries away from the pitch.

The last World Cup clash between the United States and Iran 24 years ago is considered one of the most politically charged matches in soccer history.

This time, the political overtones are just as strong and relations perhaps even more fraught as the countries face off once again on Tuesday in Qatar.

Iran’s nationwide protests, its expanding nuclear program and regional and international attacks linked back to Tehran have pushed the match beyond the stadium and into geopolitics.

No matter the outcome, tensions are likely only to worsen in the coming months.

When relations soured between the U.S. and Iran depends on who you ask. Iranians point to the 1953 CIA-backed coup that cemented Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi’s power. Americans remember the 1979 U.S. Embassy takeover and 444-day hostage crisis during the Iranian Revolution.

In soccer, however, the timeline is much simpler as this will be only the second time Iran and the U.S. have played each other in the World Cup.

The last time was at the 1998 tournament in France — a totally different time in the Islamic Republic. Iran won 2-1 in Lyon, a low point for the U.S. men’s team as Iranians celebrated in Tehran.

The U.S. is under enormous pressure to beat Iran or go home.

“We know exactly what Iran is gonna bring, a well-coached team, very committed team,” said Gregg Berhalter, the U.S. men’s soccer coach. “For us, it’s just focus; we’re not looking backward.”

A draw or a loss Tuesday night would eliminate the Americans, who tied Wales 1-1 and England 0-0. England leads Group B with four points, followed by Iran with three, the U.S. with two and Wales with one.

Meanwhile, the U.S. continues to show its support for the Iranian people, which drew the ire of some Iranian reporters covering the games.

During unusual pre-match news conferences Monday, U.S. captain Tyler Adams was chastised for pronouncing the opponent “Eye-ran” instead of “E-ran.” Adams apologized for the mispronunciation.

Iran state media is calling for the U.S. to be banned from competing in the competition after a now-deleted U.S. Soccer Federation (USSF) tweet which included a graphic with a doctored Iranian national flag without the Islamic Republic emblem.

In a statement to an Iranian news agency, Safia Allah Faghanpour, Iran’s soccer federation legal advisor, said the U.S. not suing the Islamic log or Iran’s national flag is “unethical,” according to The New York Times.

“Respecting a nation’s flag is an accepted international practice that all other nations must emulate,” Faghanpour said. “The action conducted in relation to the Iranian flag is unethical and against international law.”

Berhalter apologized for the USSF’s decision during a news conference Monday. The USSF’s flag decision was meant to support women protesters in Iran.

“We had no idea about what U.S. Soccer put out,” Berhalter said. “All we can do on our behalf is apologize on behalf of the players and the staff.”

Yet, the criticism continued as Adams was asked to defend the U.S.’s treatment of Black people and Berhalter was questioned about U.S. immigration and naval policy.

The contest between the two nations that severed ties over 40 years ago will be held with increased security to prevent a flare-up of tensions over the unrest that has gripped Iran since the death Sept. 16 death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman who had been earlier detained by the country’s morality police. The protests have seen at least 451 people killed since they started, as well as over 18,000 arrested, according to Human Rights Activists in Iran, an advocacy group following the demonstrations.

The Associated Press and The Hill contributed to this report.

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