The US team beat Iran at the World Cup amidst a rush of controversies that made playing and winning even harder than it needed to be. The own goal by their federation’s social media team, the Iranians’ great umbrage at the perceived insult to their flag, the chatter and the threats and the intrigue all added to the spice of the matchup. But if United States wanted to keep playing in this tournament, it had to beat Iran. And so it did, but it didn’t come easy.
Christian Pulisic, perhaps the Americans’ brightest star and the scorer of its only goal in a 1-0 victory, was forced from the game at halftime with an abdominal injury sustained when he crashed hard into Iran’s goalkeeper finishing his goal. His status for the next round, a date with the Netherlands on Saturday, was unclear as the game ended. But that will be a question for tomorrow. The United States, thanks to its victory, now has one.
Iran, unlike the United States, has never advanced out of the first round at a World Cup. Its team, long a symbol of unity in a persistently divided nation, had needed only a tie to advance. Its tournament had been a roller-coaster: a thumping at the hands of England, a last-minute win over Wales, a date against a young American team still finding its way.
But Iran’s time in Qatar also had been a test. As protests and crackdowns have roiled Iran for months, its soccer players have found themselves trying to navigate an excruciating and shrinking middle ground between millions of their countrymen who have been urging them to use their voices, and their platforms, to do more to support the fight for more rights, more freedoms, more accountability, and Iran’s government, intolerant of dissent and capable of crushing it forcefully, and quickly.
The Iranian players had tested their limits in Qatar, declining to sing their national anthem before their opening game, only to adjust, days later, and appear to grudgingly go through the motions days later before a match against Wales.
The World Cup held value for both sides. For the regime, a victory over the United States would be of immense value, a helpful point of national pride. For the protesters, Iran’s continued presence meant more days in the spotlight at the world’s biggest sporting event, more focus on their country and their cause, more chances to jeer the government in subtle — and vocal. — ways inside stadiums.