USMNT World Cup Daily, Day 15
Ahead of the U.S.'s must-win game against Iran, one of the most surreal press conferences I have ever attended.
DOHA, Qatar — First off, let’s address the two news headlines that came out of today’s surreal press conference ahead of the giant must-win showdown for the U.S. against Iran on Tuesday for the U.S. to advance to the World Cup knockout rounds:
• For a game in which I would love to see Tim Weah start at the centerforward position and allow Gio Reyna or Brenden Aaronson to start out wide, putting the best U.S. players on the field, coach Gregg Berhalter threw cold water on that idea.
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“In terms of alternatives at the striker position, we’re comfortable with the three that we have,” Berhalter said. “We haven’t necessarily thought about putting Gio there or Christian [Pulisic] there, or Timmy Weah there, or Jordan Morris there. We’ve been more focused on the three that we have in camp [Josh Sargent, Haji Wright and Jesús Ferreira].”
• Berhalter became the first figure from U.S. Soccer to apologize for the federation Twitter account posting an Iranian flag without the symbol of the Islamic Republic on it. On Sunday, U.S. Soccer said it had done so as a show of “support for the women in Iran fighting for basic human rights.” By the end of Sunday, the Iranian federation had tried to appeal to FIFA to get the U.S. kicked out of the World Cup (to no avail) and U.S. Soccer had deleted the posts.
“The players and the staff knew nothing about what was being posted,” Berhalter said Monday. “All we can do is apologize on behalf of the players and the staff. But it’s not something that we were part of.”
U.S. Soccer said on Sunday that it had not consulted with the State Department before making the post. My sense is that it was entirely well-meaning from the federation, but removing the symbol could also be taken other ways (anti-Islam, etc) and it changed the tone of both Sunday and Monday’s press conferences in ways that made it challenging for the U.S. players and Berhalter.
U.S. Soccer’s gesture was connected to nationwide protests in Iran over a woman named Mahsa Amini, who died in custody in September after being detained by Iran’s morality police for not wearing a hijab in accordance with regime standards. Protests have been constant inside Iran ever since, along with a crackdown by Iran’s hard-line rulers.
Iran’s players responded on Matchday 1 of the World Cup by not singing their national anthem, causing the Iranian regime to insist that they sing it for Game 2. Iranian fans in the stadium could be seen crying as the players half-heartedly mouthed the words.
Meanwhile, CNN issued this report:
And supporters of Iranian women’s rights, many of whom appreciated U.S. Soccer’s gesture, called for chants of “Woman, Life, Freedom” during the playing of Iran’s anthem on Tuesday:
And the Iranian state-affiliated media that was asking for the U.S. to be removed from the World Cup for defacing Iran’s flag has a Twitter profile banner that features … a burning U.S. flag.
And then there was Tyler Adams, who showed remarkable poise and humility in front of a global audience.
When you think about it, it’s very rare for athletes to face hostile questioners in a public forum. When it happens at the World Cup, you learn a lot about the poise of someone who’s on the receiving end of things. Adams, the U.S. captain, is 23 years old. And he handled himself with remarkable maturity when facing antagonistic questioning from Milad Javanmardy of Press TV, which is tagged on Twitter as Iranian state-affiliated media (as is a lot of the Iranian media that attended the press conference):
“You say you support the Iranian people, but you are pronouncing our country’s name wrong. Our country is named ee-RAHN, not eye-RAN. Please, once and for all, let’s get this clear. Second of all, are you okay to be representing a country that has so much discrimination against Black people in its own borders? We saw the Black Lives Matter movement over the past few years. Are you okay to be representing the U.S.? Meanwhile, there’s so much discrimination happening against Black people in America.”
“My apologies on the mispronunciation of your country. That being 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 U.S. we’re continuing to make progress every single day. 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 easily able to assimilate in different cultures. 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 it’s a process. I think as long as you see progress, that’s the most important thing.”
Adams has always been incredibly mature for his years. The way he has spoken here at the World Cup and has represented the United States in front of a global audience is something that should bring pride to the entire country.
As I mentioned, it was a surreal press conference. An hour after zero U.S. journalists were called on by the FIFA moderator (despite plenty of us trying) to ask questions of Iran coach Carlos Queiroz and player Karim Ansarifad—a press conference where Iranian journalists clapped loudly at the start, the middle and the end—no fewer than nine Iranian media members were called on by the FIFA moderator to ask questions of Berhalter and Adams. And their questions included the following.
• Question: “What percentage of the population of the world will be happy because of the win of the national team of Iran, and what percentage of the whole population of the world will be happy if the United States Soccer team wins?”
Berhalter: “When I think about this match, I know that a lot of other constituents have another feeling towards it. But for us it’s a soccer game against a good team, and it’s not much more than that.”
• Question: “If you take away the very sacred word of Allah from the flag of the country, it is disrespectful. It’s an insult. And right now we see that the U.S. federation has also given a communiqué that is supporting women. We have never seen in sports that something like this happens. So what do you think? Do you think that this movement on their part is going to be your disadvantage or is something that is going to boost your morale?” (Berhalter replied with the apology.)
• Question: “Why is it that you do not ask your government take away its military fleet from the Persian Gulf?”
Berhalter: Addressed the soccer part of the two-part question and didn’t answer this one.
• Question: “My question about Jurgen Klinsmann and his offense to coach of Iran, Mr. Queiroz. He was starting a psychological warfare to Iran or, or not?”
Berhalter: “I’m up here to discuss the game USA-Iran, not Jurgen Klinsmann.”
• Question: “I’ve been at New York about two months ago, and there was no support of your team as the high rise of inflation and economical problems. Do you think the American people support your team and you? Or no, they don’t care about it.”
Berhalter: “I can’t speak for them, but what I would say is from my understanding there are 19 million people [actually 20 million] who watched the last game. So it seems like there’s some great support back home.”
• Question: “How is your reaction when I tell you U.S. passport can be welcome to Iran anytime and they can visit anywhere in Iran, but at the same time Iranian passport can’t enter USA?”
Berhalter: “You know, I don’t know enough about politics. I’m a soccer coach, so I can’t comment on that.”
On and on it went. And with their simple, succinct answers that didn’t show anger or hostility, with their patience and their respect and their humanity, Berhalter and Adams communicated more than they probably even realized.
In other news, Sam Stejskal of The Athletic asked Berhalter about Eric Wynalda’s claim in a Los Angeles Times panel that there is a rift between Berhalter and Reyna because Berhalter supposedly told Reyna to lie to reporters after the Wales game and say he wasn’t fit. (Reyna told reporters he was 100%.)
“That’s just not who I am,” Berhalter said. “That’s not what I represent. So if you have to take Eric’s word or my word or whatever, you know, feel free. I know what happened. That’s not what I represent, and like every other person, Gio is a member of this team that we care deeply for, and we know he can help the team. It’s a matter of when he can help us and how he can help us.”
For my question at the U.S. press conference, I asked about soccer. Queiroz is known in the latter stages of his career as a master of parking the bus, and I asked Adams and Berhalter if that’s what they expected to see on Tuesday considering Iran needs only a tie to advance instead of the USMNT.
Adams said: “Watching Iran’s last game, I would not expect them to do that, because they went after the game and they were looking for three points. You could tell from the mentality of the group they were attacking, counter-attacking, doing everything they needed to do, fighting in every single duel, tackles. Every single moment of the game looked like it could be their moment to score a goal. So I’m not expecting them to do that. We know that it’s a knockout game. And of course we have to attack. I mean, I'm not the coach of their team, so I’m not exactly sure what they’re going to do, but based off of last game I’m expecting them to come after it.”
Berhalter’s response: “I would expect Carlos Queiroz to do whatever he thinks is necessary for his team to advance.”
I think Queiroz is going to park the bus plenty in this game, and the U.S.’s World Cup survival is going to depend on finding a way to break through.
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