RAYYAN, Qatar — Going through a World Cup without any diversions is almost impossible because the planet’s most popular sporting event transcends the game and invites conversation — and arguments — about geopolitics, culture and national pride. It’s all part of what England Coach Gareth Southgate recently called “the tournament of external noise,” and it reached a cacophony Monday for U.S. men’s national team Coach Gregg Berhalter and his players.
Since arriving here more than two weeks ago, Berhalter and U.S. men’s national team have navigated topics such as Qatari workers’ rights and LGBTQ+ issues. And on the eve of a must-win proposition against Iran in the Group B finale, he and captain Tyler Adams fielded questions fueled by a controversy created by their own governing body, the U.S. Soccer Federation.
In recent graphics posted to social media, the USSF removed a symbol in the middle of the flag associated with Iran’s clerical leaders — its way of supporting “women in Iran fighting for basic human rights,” it said. By the end of the day on Sunday, the federation had backtracked, deleting the posts and saying that, going forward, it would display the official Iranian flag.
Blowback was fierce in some international circles and there were calls in Iran for FIFA to punish the United States. When Berhalter and Adams appeared at a tense news conference Monday, they were forced to answer — uncomfortably at times — a series of questions from mostly Iranian reporters that weren’t focused on soccer.
Berhalter said the coaching staff and players had no advance knowledge of the USSF’s plans to alter the flag. He and Adams seemed bothered not by the questions, but that they had been put in this position by the federation.
“All we can do … is apologize on behalf of the players and the staff,” Berhalter said. “It’s not something we are a part of.”
Adams, who is Black, was questioned about representing a country where discrimination against minorities is prevalent, the reporter said. He was lectured by the same reporter about how to pronounce “Iran.”
Seemingly unrattled, Adams, a 23-year-old midfielder who was voted captain by his teammates, handled the questions, apologized for mispronouncing “Iran” and didn’t shy from discussing racial issues in America.
“One thing I’ve learned, especially from living abroad the past years and having to fit in in different cultures and assimilating to different cultures is that, in the U.S., we’re continuing to make progress every single day,” Adams said. “I grew up in a white family with obviously an African American heritage and background. So I had a little bit of different cultures. And I was easily able to assimilate in different cultures. Not everyone has that ease and ability to do that. It takes longer to understand and, through education, it’s super important.”
Directing his comment to the reporter, he added: “Like you just educating me now on the pronunciation of your country. So yeah, it’s a process. As long as you see progress, that’s the most important thing.”
Berhalter was asked about support for his team back home amid economic problems in the United States and his reaction to Iranian citizens being unable to enter the United States.
“I don’t know enough about politics,” he said. “I’m a soccer coach. I’m not well versed in international politics.”
The 30-minute session also included a number of soccer topics: How will the United States solve its scoring problems? Will Iran play defensively? Is it up to the task of beating Iran and claiming one of the group’s two slots in the round of 16?
The flag kerfuffle, though, threw a curveball at a team that, at this critical juncture, would have preferred to focus exclusively on soccer.
“A lot of other constituents have another feeling toward it, but for us, it’s a soccer game against a good team,” Berhalter said. “And it’s not much more than that … I don’t want to sound aloof or not caring [about Iranian human rights issues] by saying that, but the guys have worked really hard for the last four years.”
Later in the news conference, he reiterated that point, saying: “What I see from the group is this tremendous amount of focus. There is no real distractions. I know there’s a lot going on here, but the group is focused on: How do we get a win?”
The United States (0-0-2, two points) sits in third place, a point behind Iran (1-1-0). First-place England (1-0-1, four) will face Wales (0-1-1, one) in the other group match.
“We support Iran’s people and Iran’s team, but we’re laser-focused on this match, as they are as well,” Adams said. “We continue to show our support and our empathy for what’s obviously happening to the Iranian team and the people.”
In solidarity with government protesters back home, Iranian players did not sing the national anthem before their opener against England last Monday. They did sing before their second game against Wales.
“We know they are going through things right now,” U.S. defender Walker Zimmerman said Sunday night. “They are human. We empathize with that human emotion. We can feel for them.”
Before Berhalter and Adams took questions, Iranian Coach Carlos Queiroz took the high road. Given multiple opportunities to criticize the USSF, he spoke at length about the importance of the match and the harmony sports can often to promote.
“We are about solidarity with all — all — humanitarian causes all over the world, whatever they are, who they are,” he said. “Human rights, racism, kids that die in schools with shootings — we are in solidarity to all those causes, but here our mission is to bring the smiles for the people at least for 90 minutes.”
Queiroz, who is Portuguese, is an international soccer sage. His travels have taken him to the United States, where he coached the MLS’s New York/New Jersey MetroStars, now the New York Red Bulls, in 1996, and was a USSF consultant who nearly became the U.S. national team coach in the mid-1990s.
He has coached Real Madrid and assisted Manchester United, guided Portugal at the 2010 World Cup and spent eight years running the Iranian squad before returning this fall for a second tour.
Queiroz spoke highly of the U.S. team — “the most consistent in the group” — and marveled at the growth of MLS. He also played down using the flag controversy to motivate his players.
“If after 42 years in this game as a coach I still believe I could win games with those mental games, I think I did not learn nothing from the game,” he said. “This is not the case. Those events surrounding this World Cup, I hope will be a good lesson for all of us in the future.”
Even without the flag dust-up, the United States-Iran match carried political overtones. The countries do not have formal diplomatic relations and have been at odds since the 1979 Iranian revolution.
Tensions were high when the teams met at the 1998 World Cup in Lyon, France. With a 2-1 victory, Iran eliminated the United States from knockout-round contention.
At the time, Berhalter was a pro player in the Netherlands. For that match, he served as an analyst on Dutch TV.
“That game just sticks in my mind and burns in my mind,” Berhalter said. “What I saw from the opening whistle is one team that really wanted to win the game and one team that didn’t really want to win the game. Iran wanted to win the game with everything. They played really committed, really focused. For us to have a chance to advance tomorrow, that’s going to have to be the mindset of our group.”