Storms of controversy were initially stoked by ex-USMNT manager Jurgen Klinsmann’s controversial remarks about Team Melli’s performances at the tournament. And then U.S. Soccer’s since-backtracked social media posts featuring an Iranian flag absent the Emblem of Iran and other symbols of the nation’s hardline Islamic government – designed as a form of protest against the violence surrounding women-led dissent in the Western Asian nation – have been like gasoline on that fire.
That leadup made their matchday-1 press conference at the Qatar National Convention Center rather combustible.
Throngs of Iranian journalists, most from outlets affiliated with the government, rained down one confrontational question after another about the political overtones of this all-decisive Group B match, even as both player and manager offered apologies for perceived transgressions.
What’s clear: There appears a clear separation between the off-field and the sporting sides of the USMNT’s contingent in Qatar when it comes to the origins of this geopolitical situation that’s grabbed international attention.
“The players and the staff knew nothing about what was being posted,” said Berhalter. “Sometimes things are out of our control. We believe that it's going to be a match [where] the result will depend on who puts more effort in, who executes better on the field, and we're not focused on those outside things. And all we can do on our behalf is apologize on behalf of the players and the staff.”
Adams put in spotlight
Adams complimented Tuesday’s adversaries. Yet that, too, drew blowback.
“We support Iran's people and Iran's team. But that being said, we're laser-focused on this match, as they are as well. We know how important this is, our progress of our team, and what we want to do to prove to our country how hard we've been working, and we know they want to do exactly the same,” said the Leeds United midfielder and New York Red Bulls homegrown product.
The confrontational tone of the presser didn’t abate, though.
“You say you support the Iranian people, but you're pronouncing our country's name wrong. Our country is named eee-ron, not i-ran. Once and for all let's get this clear,” said an Iranian journalist.
“Second of all,” he continued, “are you OK to be representing a country that has so much discrimination against Black people in his own borders? We saw the Black Lives Matter movement over the past few years; are you okay to be representing the US, meanwhile, there's so much discrimination happening against Black people in America?”
Adams, too, handled the politically-charged question.
“My apologies on the mispronunciation of your country,” the 23-year-old said. “There's discrimination everywhere you go. One thing that I've learned, especially from living abroad in the past years, and having to fit in in different cultures and kind of assimilate into different cultures, is that in the US, we're continuing to make progress every single day. Growing up for me, I grew up in a white family with obviously an African-American heritage and background as well.
“So I had a little bit of different cultures. And I was very, very easily able to assimilate in different cultures. So 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 on 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.”
US-based and overseas media got in a few queries about the match itself, tactics and the USMNT’s road to this point. But their Iranian counterparts returned to off-field matters quickly, alleging “psychological warfare” on the part of US media, federation officials and even Klinsmann, who has had no ties with U.S. Soccer since his dismissal from the USMNT’s head coaching post in November 2016.
Many in the Iranian press pack made clear they believe their national team, and by extension their nation, has been treated unfairly by the many questions in Qatar about the women-led civil rights issues roiling their country since September, a specter hanging heavily over both players and fans at this World Cup.
Berhalter was even asked if US-domestic economic problems like inflation are detracting from their perceived support back home. And what about the heavy sanctions imposed on Iran that make it difficult for Iranians to visit the US, whereas Americans are welcomed into that nation? One query delved into the US Navy's Persian Gulf-based fleet.
Berhalter and Adams kept their composure.
“I can't speak for every American, but what I would say is from my understanding, there were 19 million people [the actual number is 20 million] who watched the last game,” said Berhalter of their 0-0 draw vs. England on Black Friday. “So it seems like there's some great support back home. I know anytime the US is in international competition, the country gets behind us. And I can imagine there's going to be massive support in tomorrow's game, and hopefully, throughout the tournament.
“I don't know enough about politics. I'm a soccer coach,” Berhalter later confessed. “ And I'm not well-versed on international politics, so I can't comment on that.”
Conversely, Team Melli’s manager Carlos Quieroz, who coached the New York/New Jersey MetroStars during MLS’s 1996 inaugural season and played a key role in the federation’s Project 2010 player development overhaul, was greeted with applause from the Iranian media before, during and after his press conference.
Questions posed to Quieroz – which were asked mainly by Iranian reporters, with no women among those given a chance to speak – allowed him to be a downright statesman by comparison. Iran, unlike the USMNT, are likely through with a draw in their Group B finale.
“We’re going to try to do our best against without any doubt – without any doubt in my opinion – the most consistent and regular and probably even the team that makes the best two performances in the tournament in our group, United States,” said the well-traveled Portuguese coach. “They played very well in the first game against Wales, played very well against England. All the other teams, including our team, were not so consistent.
“For me it is also a very, very particularly special, special day because I had the opportunity also to work for MLS at the beginning of MLS, help football in the United States to grow up. I was working also with US soccer national team, so being part of this great family of football, the United Nations of football, for me it is an honor and privilege.”