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Iran vs USA: Sporting spectacle with a geopolitical twist

The political history between the two countries is likely to heighten the drama in what is already a must-win affair.

Soccer Football - FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 - Group B - England v Iran - Khalifa International Stadium, Doha, Qatar - November 21, 2022 Iran players line up during the national anthems before the match. (REUTERS/Marko Djurica)

831 players, 32 teams and four matches per day – following the football World Cup can get a little overwhelming. For the next month, The Indian Express will cut through the clutter and handpick the biggest storyline of the day every morning.


Showcase game
Iran vs USA (Group B)
12.30 am (Wednesday), Al Thumama Stadium

Two days prior to their crucial group-stage encounter against the United States at the FIFA World Cup, the Iranian football federation called for the disqualification of their opponents.

The reason: the US Soccer Federation (USSF) posted an image of a doctored Iranian flag, without the country’s official emblem, on social media. The two posts were later taken down, but per The New York Times, the US confirmed the omission was intentional, meant as a show of support for the women in Iran.

Iran’s famed no-nonsense coach Carlos Queiroz shot back in his pre-match press conference. “We have said many times that we have solidarity of all humanitarian causes,” he was quoted as saying by The Guardian. “But we have solidarity with causes all over the world whoever they are. If you talk human rights, racism, kids dying at schools from shooting, we have solidarity with all. But we bring a smile for 90 minutes, that is our mission.”

This came 24 hours after Queiroz called on Jurgen Klinsmann – member of Germany’s 1990 World Cup-winning team with an unescapable connection to the US, coaching their men’s team between 2011 and 2016 – to resign from his position in FIFA’s technical study group after critcising the “culture” of Iran’s team.

 

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A post shared by Carlos Queiroz (@carlosqueiroz_)

The political unrest in Iran has been a narrative of high drama in the background of this World Cup. Iran’s football players, just as they had done in a pre-tournament friendly in September, did not sing the country’s national anthem during their opening match against England in support of the protestors that have taken to the country’s streets following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who had been arrested by the country’s morality police for not wearing the hijab. As the anthem played, Iran’s boisterous travelling support booed.

They lost to England 6-2, and looked visibly shaken by the emotional significance of their step. They won their next game 2-0 against Wales, embracing that very emotional significance to put in an incredibly resilient performance.

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In doing so, they gave themselves a chance to qualify for the knockout stages of the World Cup for the first time. A draw against USA may well be enough for them to go through, unless Wales pull of a very unlikely upset against England. But given the fact that their opponents are the country’s great geopolitical rivals, those in Iran will be keen for a win.

The conflict between Iran and the US has raged on ever since the Iranian Revolution of 1980, which installed the Khomeini family in power in the Gulf nation. There have been skirmishes ever since, the conflict reigniting as recently as 2020 after the US killed a top Iranian general and Tehran responded with retaliatory missile strikes at US forces based in Iraq.

Just as it has done in other parts of the world – cricket fans either side of the Wagah border will be well aware – sport acts as a medium for the conflict to play out, and for political points to be won. At the 1998 World Cup in France, Iran defeated the US in a landmark 2-1 win that is remembered fondly in Tehran till date.

Given everything that has gone on at this tournament, in the stands and on the pitch, Iranian emotions will be running high. Politics aside though, there is a game to be won.

Tense encounter

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From a footballing perspective, this is a game that is likely to be a closely-fought one. Iran’s counter-attacking style needed to be changed against Wales in their desperation for the three points. On Tuesday, however, they will be more compact and organised through their workmanlike midfield and resolute defence.

This makes the potential impact of their forwards, Bayer Leverkusen’s Sardar Azmoun (himself under the scanner in Iran after showing his support to Iran’s protesters) and FC Porto’s Mehdi Taremi, a crucial feature of their team.

For the US, the situation is clearer. Anything less than a win will see them out of the competition. They have looked promising in parts in their two games, dominating in the first half against Wales before getting pegged back in the second, unable to deal with Rob Page’s tactical shift. They looked a more complete side against England, a lacklustre goalless draw that may not have been the worst result for them considering the gulf in talent on the pitch.

Timothy Weah scored their only goal, Christian Pulisic has shown sparks – nothing less or more – and Weston McKennie has looked the part he has not for Max Allegri’s Juventus. Expect them to have more of the ball, but do not necessarily expect them to break down Iran, who will be a constant, looming threat on the transition.

Whatever the result, its reception in Doha, Washington and Tehran will likely be animated.

Other fixtures on the day:

Ecuador vs Senegal, 8.30 pm, Khalifa International Stadium

Netherlands vs Qatar, 8.30 pm, Al Bayt Stadium

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First published on: 29-11-2022 at 08:00 IST
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