AL-RAYYAN, Qatar – In hindsight, the tenor of things was revealed from the moment Carlos Queiroz and Karim Ansarifard received a hearty round of applause as they strode into the wood-paneled auditorium deep inside the Qatari National Convention Centre.
That was just the start of an antagonistic and deeply surreal press conference.
The room that hosted both teams’ pregame availability one day ahead of the enormous — Ansarifard politely called it “a very sensitive game” — United States vs. Iran World Cup match was almost full, with representatives of US, Iranian and overseas journalists alike. Only one of those groups was clapping for Team Melli’s manager and striker, though.
An urbane, charismatic presence, Quieroz has led the Iranian side for most of the past decade. And his back-and-forth with Iran’s press pack — most of it hailing from state-affiliated outlets — flashed the cleverness by which he has endeared himself to so many across the nation without antagonizing the complex network of political factors that affect so much of high-level sports in the Islamic Republic.
While he did not utter the words “stick to sports,” that message was crystal clear.
“If after 42 years in this game as a coach, I still believe that I could win games with those mental games, I think I did not learn anything about the game. And this is not the case,” said Queiroz when asked about allegations of gamesmanship and skulduggery by the U.S. and Jurgen Klinsmann ahead of this fixture. “Those collective set of events that are surrounding this World Cup, I hope it will be a good lesson for all of us in the future. And that in the next event, we’ll be learning that our mission here is to create entertainment. And at least during 90 minutes, make the people happy.
That was likely music to the ears of both Iranian and Qatari government officials infuriated by media coverage of the ongoing human-rights protests that have roiled the streets of Iran for months, with hundreds reportedly killed and thousands arrested in state reprisals. Or the host nation’s questionable track record with migrant labor, laws criminalizing homosexuality and widespread reports of corruption around the awarding of this tournament.
It certainly drew another loud ovation from the Iranian press, who clapped a third time when Queiroz and Ansarifard left the room, with a FIFA official not offering any of the women journalists in the room a chance to pose a question.
The reception given to USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter and captain Tyler Adams a little under an hour later was drastically different.
“Tomorrow, perhaps it’s going to be the most sensitive game of this Cup,” an Iranian journalist stated in the second question of the United States’ presser. “If we made a survey of the whole world, 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 because of the United States soccer team wins?
Berhalter sought to defuse the ferocious tensions rumbling around this occasion, from Klinsmann’s contentious words about Team Melli, to the U.S. Soccer social-media posts that fleetingly used images of the Iranian flag sans the central emblem and other Islamic imagery in a gesture of support to the protesters in Iran.
“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,” said Berhalter. “It’s a knockout game, both teams want to go to the next round, both teams are desperate to go to the next round. And that’s how we’re looking at this match. We’re very focused on what we could do as a team, as are they. And we think it’s going to be a good soccer game.”
The questions posed by Iranians grew more and more strident. After Adams offered a seemingly earnest declaration of support for “Iran’s people and Iran’s team,” but added that his team is “laser focused” on securing the victory that will see them through to the knockout stages, another journalist called out his mispronunciation of the country’s name (Adams said I-ran rather than eee-ron).
Then he asked the USMNT captain if he was “OK to be representing a country that has so much discrimination against Black people in its own borders?” and where “there’s so much discrimination happening against Black people in America.”
Adams was measured in his response.
“My apologies on the mispronunciation of your country,” said the 23-year-old midfielder. “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. Growing up for me, 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. So 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 yeah, it’s a process, I think. As long as you see progress, that’s the most important thing.”
🎙️ La rueda de prensa más incómoda de lo que llevamos de Mundial.
🎥 Tyler Adams contestó una de las preguntas a un periodista iraní sobre el racismo en Estados Unidos.
— Relevo (@relevo) November 28, 2022
The queries from Iranian reporters ran the gamut of their nation’s frustrations with the United States government and its foreign policy.
“Why is it that you do not ask your government to take away its military fleet from the Persian Gulf?”
“It seems the U.S. media have also started the mind games and attack like England and U.K. [media], we have never seen in sports that something like this has happened.”
“I’ve been in New York about two months ago, and there was no support to your team [due to] the high rise of inflation and economic problems. Do you think the American people support your team and you?”
“How is your reaction when I tell you U.S. passport [holders], they can be welcome to Iran anytime, and they can visit anywhere in Iran. But the same time Iranian passport, they can’t enter USA or United States lands, otherwise they have to make some problems?”
“Jurgen Klinsmann and his offense to head coach of Iran, Mr. Queiroz, he was starting psychological warfare to Iran or not?”
On and on went the fusillade of grievance, with Iranian journalists making clear that their members see great unfairness being inflicted on their team and its nation, leaving Adams and Berhalter nonplussed.
“I don’t know enough about politics. I’m a soccer coach,” Berhalter said at one point. “And I’m not well-versed on international politics.”
It was a surreal moment, and underlined — if the USMNT could possibly have any remaining doubt — just how many layers of meaning and controversy have been layered atop this zero-sum match.
“Sports is a huge opportunity to bring people together,” Adams said. “We continue to show our support and our empathy for what’s obviously happening to the Iranian team and the people. That being said, we do have a game to focus on.”