DOHA, Qatar — One thing you hear over and over here at the Qatar World Cup is how football brings the world together.
That motto is being put to perhaps its toughest test at Al Thumama stadium on Tuesday, where historic foes the United States and Iran play a crucial group stage match.
How crucial? Both national teams covet a spot in the knockout round, where the initial 32 World Cup teams is halved to 16. Iran has never made it that far. The U.S. has, but considers advancement to this knockout stage a must, as a way to validate the last four years spent building a men's program after the disappointment of failing to qualify for the last World Cup.
The U.S. has to beat Iran to advance. Four years come down to one match.
"We said this team is going to be judged on what we do at the World Cup," American coach Gregg Berhalter said in Doha on Monday, "so that's fine. We'll deal with it. We're focused on winning tomorrow."
As is Iran — who can still advance with a tie, though the team is expected to hold nothing back in pursuit of a win.
In their cocoons of team practices and meetings and meals, the focus is simple. But every time both teams have ventured outside, the match focus has been challenged by an escalating number of issues far from the tournament's pristine green football pitches.
It started with a silent anthem
At first, the issues involved Iran alone, as the country's recent turmoil played out symbolically at this World Cup.
It started before Iran's first match, against England, as the Iranian players stayed silent during their national anthem. New reports say that afterward, the team was called to a meeting with Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps and told players' families would be jailed or tortured if the players refused to sing going forward, or joined in any other political protest against the Iranian government. Against Wales, the players sang. But at that match, Iran's domestic troubles began to play out in a more contentious way, among Iranian fans. The players' on-field euphoria after beating Wales 2-nil shared the spotlight with ugly confrontations between fans supporting the protest movement back home, and fans supporting the Iranian government that's been cracking down on protesters.
One of the flashpoints during those confrontations was over flags. Some of the protest movement supporters waved, or tried to wave, pre-revolution flags of Iran. Government supporters, with help from Qatari security, confiscated those flags, reportedly ripping some away, and waved flags of the current national Islamic Republic of Iran.
The controversy over flags became even more pointed when the U.S. entered the fray.
Be the Change ignites a firestorm
In the lead-up to this World Cup, the U.S. Soccer Federation talked frequently about a mission statement it created in the aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd — a statement, Be the Change, that promoted an awareness and dedication to speak out on social injustices in the U.S. and around the world.
This past weekend, U.S. Soccer spoke out. And ignited a political firestorm.
The idea was to post on social media images of Iran's flag scrubbed of its Islamic emblem and language saying "God is great." It was the U.S. federation's way to show "support for the women in Iran fighting for basic human rights."
The action drew support, but also anger and calls for the U.S. team, which had no prior knowledge of the federation's plan, to be kicked out of the World Cup.
The depictions of the doctored flags were removed from social media and the normal Iranian flag was restored. The federation said the removal wasn't because of pressure, but rather because "we wanted to show our support for the women in Iran with our graphic for 24 hours."
They may have wanted the show of support to be short-lived, but with tensions already high, the controversy followed both teams to Monday's pre-match press conferences.
Trying to steer toward soccer
Speaking to reporters on Monday, Berhalter willingly answered questions about football and Tuesday's match, and dutifully answered questions about the flag flap — often from openly hostile members of the Iranian media contingent.
Though he apologized on behalf of the players and team, Berhalter said several times that he and the team had no advance warning or involvement in the federation's plan to doctor the Iranian flag.
"We had no idea about what U.S. Soccer put out," Berhalter said, adding, "of course our thoughts are with the Iranian people, the whole country, the whole team, everyone. But our focus is on this match."
Still, questions came, going beyond flags.
One of the more contentious moments came when an Iranian journalist scolded U.S. team captain Tyler Adams for incorrectly saying "eye-ran" rather than "ih-rahn." The 23-year old, who's Black, apologized for the mispronunciation and then thoughtfully answered a question about whether he was "OK to be representing [the U.S.], which has so much discrimination against Black people?"
"There's discrimination everywhere you go," said Adams, whose mother is white and who grew up in a white family. "So I had a little bit of different cultures and I was very easily able to assimilate in different cultures. You know not everyone has that ease and the ability to do that. And obviously it takes longer to understand. And through education, I think it's super important. Like, you just educated me now in the pronunciation of your country. So, yeah, it's a process. I think as long as you see progress, that's the most important thing."
Forget the mental games
Even soccer questions had a political tint.
In the Iranian team press conference, a British reporter asked coach Carlos Queiroz whether he'd use the flag controversy to motivate his players.
"If after 42 years in this game as a coach," Queiroz said, "I still believe that I could win games with those mental games, I think I did not learn nothing about the game."
Rather than mental games, Adams expects Queiroz to repeat the aggressive, physical style of game Iran played in its last match — an impressive 2-0 win over Wales.
"You could tell from the mentality of the group. They were attacking, counterattacking, doing everything they needed to do," Adams said. "Every single moment of the game looked like it could be their moment to score a goal."
Both teams, Adams said, are treating this like a knockout game, where only the winner moves on. In fact, Iran can tie and still advance.
As far as U.S. tactics, Berhalter praised his team's defense, especially in holding England scoreless in a 0-0 draw on Friday. Berhalter has heard the criticism that his team needs to find a way to score — the U.S. only has one goal in the tournament — but he said the answer isn't in changing personnel among his offensive minded forwards.
"I think they've done a decent job for us," Berhalter said. "It's up to the rest of the group to give them quality [passes] that they can finish off some of these opportunities. We've been defending really well and that keeps you in games. And then we know in this game we're going to need to score a goal, that's going to have to happen. So we stay calm, we have a plan, and we will go out and try to execute that plan."
Calm. Hard to imagine anything about Tuesday's super charged match being calm. The players will try.
But what about those watching?
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Big soccer game today. It's a match between the U.S. and Iran at the World Cup in Qatar.
A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:
I was about to correct you, Rachel. It is a match. And this highly anticipated showdown will determine which of the two teams advances to the next round. There's also concern about the growing political tensions surrounding the match involving disputes between Iranian fans and the soccer federations representing the two countries.
MARTIN: NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman is in Doha, Qatar, and joins us now. Hey, Tom.
TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Good morning.
MARTIN: It's pretty much make it or break it at this point for the U.S., right?
GOLDMAN: Pretty much. You know, this is such a biggie. It will determine which team moves into prized territory, the knockout round, the final 16 teams, where every match is a win-or-you're-out contest. And for most teams, it's a measure of success to get to the knockout stage. Now, the U.S. has to win to advance. Iran's situation - a bit easier. It can draw and still move on. Then there's the big picture for the U.S. Advancing would be validation of the last four years under coach Gregg Berhalter, basically showing that the U.S. is on the right path after the disaster of failing to qualify for the last World Cup in 2018. Berhalter acknowledged yesterday, it's probably unfair to have four years come down to one match, but it's the reality. And he said, we'll deal with it.
MARTIN: So what should we look for?
GOLDMAN: Well, Iran showed it's capable of sustained, aggressive play in its impressive win over Wales. It won that match 2-nil.
GOLDMAN: U.S. captain - team captain Tyler Adams said he expects more of that attack mentality today from the Iranians, although there's some thinking that since Iran could advance with a draw, it may play a bit more conservatively, kind of hang back and then strike with counterattacks, knowing that the U.S. is going to be aggressively looking to score throughout the match.
MARTIN: What about the U.S.? I mean, at this point, they actually need to win a soccer game, not just tie them.
GOLDMAN: Yeah. They have played very good defense in this World Cup. Berhalter says that's kept them in the two matches up to now that they've played. But he acknowledges what many say - the U.S. has to find ways to score. The team has only scored one goal in the first match against Wales, and the problem seems to be twofold - players not delivering quality final passes that can be knocked in for goals, and also when those passes are there, players aren't finishing the job in scoring. As you say, that has to change because the U.S. can't win this thing without a goal or two or more.
MARTIN: Yeah, let's go for more. So that's the actual game. Let's talk about the political backdrop, because we have seen protests against the Iranian government throughout the World Cup. Are more likely today?
GOLDMAN: Well, we're expecting an increase in security after the clashes between Iranian fans here, fans who support and oppose the Iranian government for its crackdown on protests in Iran following the death in September of a young Iranian woman in police custody. Then you have the flag flap after the U.S. Soccer Federation doctored depictions of the Iranian flag on social media, an action that prompted the Iranian federation to say the U.S. should be kicked out of the World Cup. And now it's being reported families of the Iranian players are being threatened with imprisonment and torture if the players join in any way the protests against the Iranian government.
You remember the players refused to sing during their anthem before the first match against England. They sang before the Wales match after that, reportedly after being visited and warned by members of Iran's Revolutionary Guard. So, Rachel, there you go - a soccer match fraught with meaning and possible risk and, from a strictly football standpoint, one that promises great excitement.
MARTIN: Indeed. NPR's Tom Goldman at the World Cup - thanks, Tom.
GOLDMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.