Did US Soccer just score an own goal ?

Analysis by Stephen Collinson, CNNUpdated: Tue, 29 Nov 2022 03:33:31 GMTSource: CNNWhen US and Iranian players take the pitch for their critical World Cup clash on Tuesday, they'll be jogging ont

Analysis by Stephen Collinson, CNN

Updated: Tue, 29 Nov 2022 03:33:31 GMT

Source: CNN

When US and Iranian players take the pitch for their critical World Cup clash on Tuesday, they'll be jogging onto a bed of hot geopolitical coals.

The game, which the US must win to get to the knockout phase of the tournament, will take place in the middle of extraordinary controversy that is notable even for this year's World Cup, which was already in danger of being remembered as a political rather than sporting spectacular.

The United States Soccer Federation this weekend changed Iran's flag on its social media page to highlight the struggles of women protestors inside the Islamic Republic. But it may have inadvertently created a huge distraction for its own team ahead of its biggest game in years.

The move prompted the Iranian state-aligned media agency Tasnim to tweet that "Team #USA should be kicked out of the #WorldCup2022." Then on Monday, the US coach Gregg Berhalter and captain Tyler Adams endured a grilling from Iranian journalists about US travel bans, naval maneuvers in the Persian Gulf and their pronunciation of "eye ran." Adams, who is African American, was also asked how he feels representing a country where there is so much racial discrimination.

Berhalter said he and his players knew nothing about the US Soccer post ahead of time, but also tried to defuse the row. "We had no idea about what US Soccer put out. The staff, the players, we had no idea," Berhalter said. "All we can do is apologize on behalf of the players and the staff. But it's not something that we were a part of." Adams graciously apologized for mispronouncing "Iran" and insisted that the US had seen notable progress in race relations. But both the skipper and his coach seemed like they'd much rather answer questions about their back four than the four-decades old proxy war between the United States and a nation that calls it "The Great Satan."

The US Soccer gesture may also have given giving Iranian media and authorities an opportunity to distract from protests inside their country, which Iranian footballers apparently sought to highlight at great personal risk, with some declining to sing the national anthem in their opening match at the tournament and defender Ehsan Hajsafi telling press that the team supports Iran's protest movement.

CNN's Sam Kiley reports that players' family members have been threatened with jail and worse if they don't "behave" ahead of the US match. A source also told him the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps sent dozens of officers to monitor the team — adding unimaginable pressure to that already faced at a World Cup.

Emotions surrounding this clash are just the latest example of the political winds engulfing soccer's showpiece event, first stirred by FIFA's choice of Qatar as host, which triggered fierce debate over human, LGBTQ+, women's and workers' rights.

It's nothing new for global tensions to play out in sporting event — the best such example stateside is the much mythologized "Miracle on Ice" victory of the USA's ice hockey team over the mighty Soviet Union in the depth of the Cold War chill at the 1980 Olympics. But deliberately adding to the politicization of an already highly sensitive game between the US and Iran could turn out to be a political own goal.