USmnt_Iran-fan

AL-RAYYAN, Qatar – The US men’s national team already had to deal with intense pressure and massive stakes around Tuesday’s World Cup match with Iran (2 pm ET | FOX, Telemundo).

Decades of bitter political history between the two nations always make this matchup an emotional one, and now a place in the tournament’s knockout rounds is on the line, with the US needing a victory to advance out of Group B and Iran able to claim that spot with a draw or a win.

Now events of the past few days have added an even sharper edge to this enormous fixture.

Klinsmann vs. Queiroz

Former USMNT coach Jurgen Klinsmann upset Iranians with his comments in an appearance on BBC in the wake of Team Melli’s dramatic 2-0 win over Wales on Friday, in which he affirmed British presenters’ accusations of gamesmanship and dirty play by Iran as “just part of their culture.”

This also drew the ire of Iran manager Carlos Queiroz, whose managerial track record Klinsmann critiqued unflatteringly in his comments. Queiroz, who coached the New York/New Jersey MetroStars (today the New York Red Bulls) in the early days of MLS, responded on Twitter with a lengthy, full-blooded denunciation of Klinsmann’s comments – concluding with a demand that the German-American resign from his current post on FIFA’s Technical Study Group.

Chaired by Arsene Wenger, the TSG is a prominent body that analyzes and evaluates every World Cup match, compiling detailed statistics and gleaning insights about the present and future of the sport. Queiroz specifically noted Klinsmann’s “American/German” status in his Twitter thread.

Klinsmann addressed Queiroz's comments on BBC on Sunday, saying "there was stuff really taken out of context. I will try to give him a call and calm things down.

"I have never criticized Carlos or the Iranian bench," he added.

Flag fracas

On Sunday, U.S. Soccer changed the image of Iran's flag it was using on the header on the USMNT’s Twitter page and some other social-media posts to a version without the Emblem of Iran, the stylized image paying tribute to Islam’s deity and the phrase “There is no god but God.”

The edit was intended as a gesture of support to dissidents in Iran who have taken to the streets since September in passionate, women-led demonstrations demanding human rights, with the government and government-affiliated groups responding with thousands of arrests and violent reprisals that have reportedly led to hundreds of deaths.

The turmoil was sparked by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while she was being detained by morality police for allegedly failing to properly cover her hair, per the conservative restrictions of the nation’s fundamentalist Islamic government.

“The intent of the post was to show support for women's rights, it was meant to be a moment,” said USMNT press officer Michael Kammarman at the team’s Sunday evening media availability at their training base in the Doha suburbs. “We made the posts at the time, all the other representations of the flag remain consistent, and will continue to.”

usmnt-account-iranian-flag-header-2

Iranian government officials and state-affiliated media reacted furiously, accusing U.S. Soccer of disrespecting the nation, violating FIFA regulations and destabilizing their national team before the match.

An official connected to Iran’s soccer association vowed to pursue disciplinary procedures with FIFA, and some have gone so far as to advocate for the United States to be kicked out of the World Cup – a punishment that some had actually advocated be applied to Iran before the tournament in light of Iran’s military support for Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine.

U.S. Soccer officials said USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter and his players were not consulted on the social-media posts involving the altered flag, which were eventually removed or replaced with images using the Islamic Republic’s official flag. But defenders Tim Ream and Walker Zimmerman had to face multiple questions about the fracas on Sunday.

“We support women's rights, we always have, we always will,” said Ream. “That message will remain consistent. And what we're doing as a team is supporting that while also trying to prepare for the biggest game that this squad has had to date. And so that is, in this moment, our focus: supporting them, supporting women's rights, and also preparing for what is a crucial game for our group.”

The protests in Iran have hung heavy over Team Melli at this World Cup, located just two hours by plane from Tehran, with both protesters and pro-government factions among the thousands who have traveled to Doha to cheer for their team.

Iran upheaval

Many of their players elected not to sing the national anthem before their first two matches, and at the start of the tournament captain Ehsan Hajsafi expressed “condolences to all the grieving families in Iran” and expressed his sympathy and support, adding that “things in our country are not good,” remarks which were widely read as exposing him to the ire of the government.

Many of those in attendance at Iran’s matches have displayed the motto “Woman. Life. Freedom,” shorthand for the reforms being sought by protesters. Some materials with such expressions have been barred or confiscated by security staff at stadiums. Meanwhile some dissidents have criticized the national team for not making more vocal or strident statements against the Iranian government’s crackdowns.

Piled atop what’s on the line in sporting terms and two nations’ multilayered, interwoven geopolitical history going back decades, it all makes for a particularly heavy pressure cooker for the USMNT to navigate in the coming days.

“We didn't know anything about the post, but we are supporters of women's rights. We always have been. We're focused a lot on Tuesday from the sporting side as well,” said Zimmerman when asked if the flag fracas was a distraction. “I think this is such a focused group on the task at hand. But at the same time we empathize, and we are firm believers in women's rights and support them.”