The United States and Iran, diplomatic rivals for more than 40 years, will clash on Tuesday in a vital World Cup match as the two sides play their way to the knockout stages in a fitting finish for the most politically charged group of this year’s tournament.
Coaches for both teams avoided referring to frigid bilateral relations, saying they were focused on the tournament and its ability to bring people together.
Washington and Tehran severed diplomatic relations in 1980 following the Islamic revolution. Ties were further strained when then-President Donald Trump pulled the United States out of a nuclear deal with Iran.
The U.S. killed a high-ranking Iranian general in 2020 and Tehran responded with missile strikes on U.S. forces based in Iraq.
“I anticipate the game will be hotly contested because of the fact that both teams want to go to the next round, not because of politics or because of the relations between our countries,” U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter said.
“What football has is that you meet so many different people from all over the world, and you are united by a common love for this sport. We are footballers and we are going to compete and they are going to compete and that’s it.”
Iran’s dramatic 2-0 win over Wales and the United States’ tense 0-0 draw against England on Friday left Group B red hot.
England, leader with four points, will face Wales, so Iran-United States will decide which team goes to the knockout stages.
The long-awaited match is a rematch of the group stage of the 1998 World Cup, in which Iran won 2-1. In a symbolic moment before the match at the Stade Gerland in Lyon, the Iranian footballers gave white roses, symbol of peace in the country, to their rivals.
This year, Iran’s preparations for the World Cup have been overshadowed by civil unrest in its country following the death in September of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who was detained for breaching the country’s strict Islamic dress code.
Team Melli refused to sing Iran’s national anthem in its first match against England, in an apparent show of solidarity with the protesters. On Friday, they sang quietly at Ahmad bin Ali Stadium, where boos could be heard from their fans.
Berhalter described the clash with Iran as his team’s “first knockout match” at the World Cup and was wary of the threat posed by Iran after the second half against Wales.
“Now we have to be sure that we are good enough to advance to the second round,” Iran coach Carlos Queiroz said after his team kept alive its hopes of reaching the knockout stages for the first time.
“The United States is also a brilliant team, as we saw in their game against Wales,” he said.