Since Berhalter arrived here more than two weeks ago, Berhalter and the US men’s team have dealt with topics such as Qatari workers’ rights and LGBTQ+ issues. And on the eve of a must-win proposition against Iran in the Group B final, he and captain Tyler Adams answered questions sparked by a controversy created by their own governing body, the American Soccer Federation.
In recent images posted to social media, the USSF removed a symbol in the center of the flag associated with Iran’s ecclesiastical leaders — its way of “supporting women in Iran fighting for basic human rights,” it said. By the end of the day on Sunday, the federation had come back, removed the posts and said it would display the official Iranian flag in the future.
US Soccer briefly changes flag of Iran on social media
Blowback was fierce in some international circles and there were calls in Iran for FIFA to punish the United States. When Berhalter and Adams showed up at a tense press conference on Monday, they were forced to answer—sometimes awkwardly—a series of questions posed by mostly non-football-focused Iranian reporters.
Berhalter said the coaching staff and players had no prior knowledge of the USSF’s plans to change the flag. He and Adams seemed unbothered not by the questions, but by the fact that they had been put in this position by the federation.
“All we can do is apologize on behalf of the players and staff,” Berhalter said. “It’s not something we’re a part of.”
Adams, who is black, was questioned about representing a country where discrimination against minorities is rampant, the reporter said. He was taught by the same reporter on how to pronounce “Iran.”
Adams, a 23-year-old midfielder who was voted captain by his teammates, was seemingly unfazed. He answered the questions, apologized for mispronouncing “Iran,” and didn’t shy away from discussing racial issues in America.
“One thing I’ve learned, especially from living abroad over the past few years and having to fit in and assimilate with different cultures, is that in the U.S. we continue to make progress every day,” Adams said. “I grew up in a white family with a clear African-American heritage and background. So I had a little different cultures. And I could easily assimilate into different cultures. Not everyone has that ease and ability to do that. It takes longer to understand and education makes it super important.”
Addressing his comment to the reporter, he added: “Like you are just now teaching me about your country’s pronunciation. So yes, it’s a process. As long as you see progress, that’s the most important thing.”
Tyler Adams, a leader “by his deeds and words,” named captain of the USMNT
Berhalter was asked about support for his team at home amid economic problems in the United States and his response to the ban on Iranian citizens entering the United States.
“I don’t know enough about politics,” he said. “I am a football coach. I am not well versed in international politics.”
The 30-minute session also included a number of football topics: How will the United States solve their scoring problems? Will Iran Play Defensively? Is it up to you to beat Iran and claim one of the group’s two slots in the round of 16?
However, the flag feud threw a curveball at a team that would have preferred to focus solely on football at this critical juncture.
World Cup schedule, standings and groups
“Many other voters have a different feeling about it, but for us it is a football game against a good team,” Berhalter said. “And it’s not much more. … I don’t want to appear aloof or indifferent [about Iranian human rights issues] saying that, but the guys have been working really hard for the past four years.
Later in the press conference, he reiterated that point, saying, “What I see from the group is this tremendous amount of focus. There are no real distractions. I know there’s a lot going on here, but the group is focused on: how can we win?”
The United States (0-0-2, two points) is in third place, one point behind Iran (1-1-0). First place England (1-0-1, four) will meet Wales (0-1-1, one) in the other group stage match.
“We support the Iranian people and the Iranian team, but we are focused on this game, just like them,” said Adams. “We continue to show our support and our empathy for what is clearly happening with the Iranian team and people.”
In solidarity with government protesters at home, Iranian players did not sing the national anthem for their opener against England last Monday. They did sing for their second match against Wales.
Iran’s victory at the World Cup sparks joy, but tensions over the protests persist
“We know they’re struggling right now,” US defender Walker Zimmerman said Sunday evening. “They are human. We empathize with that human emotion. We can sympathize with them.”
Before Berhalter and Adams answered questions, Iranian coach Carlos Queiroz took the high road. Given multiple opportunities to criticize the USSF, he spoke at length about the importance of the competition and the harmony that sport can often promote.
“We stand in solidarity with all – all – humanitarian causes around the world, whatever they are, whoever they are,” he said. “Human rights, racism, children dying in school shootings – we stand in solidarity with all these causes, but here our mission is to make people smile for at least 90 minutes.”
Queiroz, who is Portuguese, is an international football sage. His travels took him to the United States, where in 1996 he coached the MLS’s New York/New Jersey MetroStars, now the New York Red Bulls, and was a USSF consultant who nearly became the U.S. national coach in the mid-1990s. .
He coached Real Madrid and assisted Manchester United, captained Portugal to the 2010 World Cup and captained Iran’s squad for eight years before returning for a second tour this autumn.
Queiroz praised the USA team – “the most consistent in the group” – and marveled at the growth of MLS. He also downplayed using the flag controversy to motivate his players.
“After 42 years in this game as a coach, if I still believe that I can win games with those mental games, then I think I have learned nothing from the game,” he said. “This is not the case. I hope that the events surrounding this World Cup will be a good lesson for all of us in the future.”
For the young USMNT, it’s ‘we win, we’re in’ at the World Cup
Even without clearing the flag, the game between the United States and Iran had political overtones. The countries have no formal diplomatic relations and have been at odds with each other since the 1979 Iranian Revolution.
Tensions were high when the teams met at the 1998 World Cup in Lyon, France. With a 2-1 victory, Iran eliminated the United States from the knockout round.
Berhalter was a professional player in the Netherlands at the time. Before that match, he served as an analyst on Dutch TV.
“That game just sticks in my head and burns in my head,” Berhalter said. “What I saw from the opening whistle was a team that really wanted to win the game and a team that didn’t really want to win the game. Iran wanted to win the game with everything. They played very committed, very focused. If we want to have a chance to continue tomorrow, that will have to be the mentality of our group.”
World Cup in Qatar
The last: The World Cup continues in Qatar on Monday with the conclusion of the second round in the group stage. Follow our live coverage for the latest news, updates and highlights from the World Cup.
USMT: The United States faced England on Friday in their second World Cup game. The game ended in a 0-0 draw, leaving the United States feeling good about their performance, but also leaving Group B wildly unsettled heading into Tuesday’s final.
Political protest: The looming backdrop to Iran’s World Cup campaign is a nationwide protest movement in the home country targeting her church leadership, and tensions, inescapable and persistent, run across the field.
Perspective: The beautiful game is fine. Suitcases full of money are better. Read Sally Jenkins on the human rights controversy in Qatar.