United States coach Gregg Berhalter apologised on Monday for the furore triggered by a social media post depicting a modified version of Iran’s flag as the two geopolitical foes prepared for their crunch World Cup showdown.
US Soccer sparked uproar over the weekend after posting an Iranian flag without its Allah symbol on the federation’s social media feeds in what it said it was a gesture of solidarity with Iranian women protesters.
The posts were subsequently deleted in the wake of an outcry by the Iranian Football Federation, who lodged a complaint to FIFA demanding sanctions against the US team.
Berhalter told a press conference on Monday that the US players and coaching staff had been oblivious about the posts as he sought to calm tensions surrounding Tuesday’s Group B game, where a place in the last 16 is at stake.
“Sometimes things are out of our control,” Berhalter said. “We’re not focused on those outside things and all we can do is apologise on behalf of the players and the staff, but it’s not something that we were a part of.
“We had no idea what US Soccer put out. The staff, the players, we had no idea. For us our focus is on this match and I don’t want to sound aloof, or we’re not caring by saying that.
“Of course are thoughts are with the Iranian people, the whole country, and everyone. But our thoughts are only on this match.”
The United States and Iran have been bitter ideological foes for more than 40 years, severing diplomatic relations in the wake of the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Tuesday’s clash is only the third time the two countries have met on the football field, and the stakes could not be higher.
A win for either side will see them advance to the knockout rounds while defeat will ensure elimination from the tournament.
Berhalter has stressed that the turbulent off-field history between the US and Iran will have no bearing on his team’s preparations.
‘I’m a soccer coach’
Nevertheless, the US coach and captain Tyler Adams were peppered with questions unrelated to football at Tuesday’s news conference, with subjects ranging from racism in the United States, the correct pronunciation of “Iran” and visa restrictions for Iranians hoping to visit the United States.
“I don’t know enough about politics, I’m a soccer coach,” Berhalter replied at one point.
“When I think about this match, I know that a lot of other constituents have a lot of other feelings towards it,” Berhalter said.
“But for us it’s a soccer game against a good team. And it’s not much more than that. It’s a knockout game between two good teams that want to get to the next round.”
The US and Iran met at the World Cup in 1998, with the Iranians securing a 2-1 victory.
Former US international Berhalter covered the game as a television commentator, revealing the match left a lasting impression.
“That game sticks in my mind, it burns in my mind,” he said.
“What I saw from the opening whistle is one team that really wanted to win the game and one team that didn’t want to win the game.
“Iran wanted to win the game with everything -- they played really committed, really focused from the first whistle.
“For us to win the game tomorrow that’s going to have to be the mindset of our group ... We don’t want to make the mistakes of the past.”
Iran coach Carlos Queiroz also deflected questions about politics, brushing off suggestions that the Iranians may use the recent flag controversy as a motivational device.
“If after 42 years in this game as a coach, I still believe I can win games with those mental games, I think I’ve learned nothing about the game,” the veteran Portuguese coach said.
“This is not the case.”
Queiroz was also complimentary about the US team’s performances in Qatar, saying Berhalter’s side, who drew games against Wales and England, had made a “jump from soccer to football.”
“We play a very, very good team, very well organised with the same dream and same goal in mind,” Queiroz said.
“I hope tomorrow my boys will be able to put together their heads, their souls, their skills and the will to win.
“I hope that they will get the result that gives us a passport for the second round.”