Bloody history brings flashpoint to key Iran v USA World Cup clash

<span>Photograph: Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

“I’m not well versed on international politics. I’m a football coach,” said Gregg Berhalter, but he was a man who had just been exposed to politics in the raw. Twenty-four hours before his side’s definitive Group B fixture against Iran, the USA head coach had been hit by a fusillade of hostile questioning from Iranian media. Everything from censorship to American racism and the presence of the US fleet in the Gulf was thrown at him. It was an experience he will never have had before and few coaches will encounter.

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It was not entirely unpredictable, however. The complicated and bloody history that exists between Iran and the USA has led to simple sporting encounters between the two nations becoming diplomatic flashpoints. It was the case when the countries first faced each other at the World Cup during France 98 and, in a different way, it has happened again now.

The immediate occasion for tension is the current uprising in Iran. After the death in police custody of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old arrested for failing to properly wear the hijab, protests have spread across the country. More than 450 people have since been killed, according to the advocacy group Human Rights Activists, and more than 18,000 arrested. The protests have followed the men’s side to Qatar, where the team refused to sing the national anthem before their match against England. Supporters have also brought banners and T-shirts bearing Amini’s name into stadiums, often having them confiscated by security in a country that is an ally of the Iranian state.

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The US government has publicly sided with those revolting against the authorities. The secretary of state, Antony Blinken, said Amini “should be alive today” and called on the Iranian government to “end its systemic persecution of women and to allow peaceful protest”. The USA team had stayed out of it, however, until on Saturday night the US Soccer Federation altered the banners on its social media accounts to show the standings in Group B, only with an Iranian flag without the symbol of the Islamic Republic.

The men’s team and their staff insist they had no knowledge of this stunt and, on Monday, Berhalter apologised for it. But to judge by the stream of agitated questioning from Iranian journalists it had provided an opportunity to deflect criticism away from the Iranian authorities and on to a more traditional enemy.

Iranian forward Ali Daei fights for the ball with USA midfielder Cobi Jones during the 1998 World Cup.
Iranian forward Ali Daei fights for the ball with USA midfielder Cobi Jones during the 1998 World Cup. Photograph: Gerard Malie/AFP/Getty Images

The history of American (and British) involvement in Iran in the 20th century is shameful and entwined with the pursuit of oil. In conjunction with the British, the US provoked a coup that deposed the democratically elected leader of Iran, Mohammad Mosaddegh, in 1953. They subsequently reimposed royal rule under the Shah, Mohammad Reza, and propped up his corrupt regime, retaining control of the oil fields at the same time as switching political allegiance to regional rival Saudi Arabia. After the Islamic Revolution of 1978-79, the religious leadership became an enemy for successive US presidents and the US provided funding to Saddam Hussein throughout the eight years of the Iran-Iraq war. More recently, attempts at resetting relations between the US and Iran were reversed by Donald Trump. There is a reason they are known as the Great Satan.

This is what Berhalter walked into in Doha and while it is possible that he ought to have been better briefed as to the context of this fixture, it is also true he has experience of football rising above the tensions between these two countries. That match in Lyon in 1998 was billed “the mother of all games”. An unprecedented security presence was put in place to limit the risk of pitch invaders or violent protest. Iranian players were told not to approach their American opponents to shake their hands, as Fifa protocol dictated. Tension ran high.

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And yet a compromise was found. The Iranians instead handed the Americans flowers, the atmosphere in the ground remained voluble but calm. Iran won 2-1 but mutual respect was earned and a rematch arranged for the following year on American soil, itself a diplomatic achievement. “We did more in 90 minutes than the politicians did in 20 years,” the USA midfielder Jeff Agoos said.

Berhalter was watching on that day in Lyon, his “first and only game” as a TV pundit, he revealed at his press conference. He responded to the Iranian barrage of questions with humility and honesty, his captain Tyler Adams likewise. But Berhalter’s takeaway from the 1998 fixture was not about geopolitics but sport. He saw in the Iran team a quality he wishes for his own players at Al Thumama stadium on Tuesday.

“That game sticks in my mind, it burns in my mind,” he said. “There was one team that really wanted to win the game that day and one that didn’t. For us to have a chance to advance in this World Cup, we are going to have to play like they did.”