An the evening on which the Iranian national team played the most important 90 minutes of World Cup football history from a sporting point of view, sport was of course not the focus.
You knew that before the first round match against England, when the players used their voices against the regime by not using them – and not singing along to the national anthem. And that was also known before the third round match against the USA, when CNN reported that the families of the Iranian players had been threatened with torture and imprisonment if the players, most of whom are in solidarity with the protest movement in Iran, did not “behave”. should. How, please, should the sport be the focus even in a game like this?
There were also moments and symbols of political protest that could be seen at the al-Thumama Stadium in Doha on Tuesday evening. It started with Iranian fans wearing Ali Daei, Ali Karimi or Mehdi Mahdavikia jerseys, the former football greats who positioned themselves against the regime. And that stopped with striker Sardar Azmoun, who later stood on the pitch in his own jersey, muttering along to the national anthem. It looked like he was suffering. And probably he did too.
Iran couldn’t really do anything right
However, there were fewer moments and symbols of protest than on the first day of the match (2:6 defeat against England), when several flags and shirts with the inscription “Women Life Freedom” were seen in the stadium. That matched the CNN report, according to which the regime provided foreign workers with Iranian flags and sent them into the stadium on the second matchday (2-0 win against Wales). And supposedly journalists too.
That’s not supposed to be proof of that, but in the shuttle bus that drove from the Main Media Center to the stadium, there was also an accredited Iranian in a national jersey, who was discussing his thesis on the end of liberalism in Europe on the bus. Politics wherever you heard and looked. And the political level, which a game between Iran and the USA has in itself, was not mentioned there.
But with that to the sport. And the most important 90 minutes in Iran’s World Cup history, which were not the most successful. They ended with a 0:1 and the preliminary round.
On Tuesday evening, the 42,127 spectators saw from the start which strategy the Iranians wanted to use to reach the round of 16. They lined up in their 4-2-3-1 system in front of their own penalty area. The Iranians wanted to defend. Because they can. And because that would be enough. With a 0-0 draw they would be through unless Wales beat England. The USA, who had to win, made the game. Christian Pulisic headed the ball over the Iranian goal in the eleventh minute. The pressure got bigger and bigger – and in the 39th minute it was too big.
A fantastic attack – a chip ball from midfielder Weston McKennie, a header from full-back Sergino Dest, who ran into the penalty area, and a shot from striker Pulisic – made it 1-0. As he put the ball in goal, Pulisic collided with Iranian goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand. He couldn’t celebrate his goal, stayed in the goal and had to be treated for several minutes. He was later taken to a hospital to have his stomach examined, a spokesman for the US Football Association confirmed after the game.
This interruption resulted in minutes of added time, in which it was almost 2-0 twice. First Josh Sargent and Weah combined through the penalty area until an Iranian blocked the ball with his leg. Then Weah put the ball into the goal but it was disallowed: offside.
In the second half, the Iranians started pushing and shoving into the US half. They did that with Saman Ghoddos up front instead of Sardar Azmoun and the newcomer quickly had a good opportunity: he headed the ball over the goal from a good position. Then minute after minute passed. Now the USA defended, who are also very good at it, as they had shown in the 0-0 draw against England, who by the way were already clearly ahead of Wales.
And suddenly the game was already in the nine-minute stoppage time. The Iranian central defender headed the ball just wide of the goal. The Iranians called for a penalty after Mehdi Taremi fell. But the referee didn’t give it. Shortly thereafter, he called off the game. “The end of the game was madness. We’re happy with our performance and don’t have to be afraid of any opponent,” said American coach Gregg Berhalter after the game. The USA are now runners-up in their group and meet the Netherlands in the round of 16 on Saturday, who won their group after beating tournament hosts Qatar 2-0. And attacker Weah finally said: “It’s a dream come true for us.”
The Iranian players were lying there on the floor. And at that moment, just before coach Carlos Queiroz summed it up: “We were missing a goal. The dream is over”, you could see a team that did a lot right from a sporting point of view during these World Cup days, but still couldn’t do anything right.