The United States have knocked Iran out of the World Cup with a 1-0 victory in Doha on Tuesday night. Christian Pulisic scored the winner after 38 minutes, though the Chelsea winger was substituted at half-time and subsequently taken to hospital after colliding painfully with Iran’s goalkeeper, Alireza Beiranvand, in the act of scoring the goal.
“A blow to the abdomen,” was how US coach Gregg Berhalter characterised the injury, though replays seemed to show the impact occurring a little lower on Pulisic’s body.
The build-up to the game had been the most controversial of any so far at this tournament, as Iranian football figures and media took offence at a series of perceived American provocations.
Iran’s coach Carlos Queiroz demanded ex-US coach Jurgen Klinsmann resign from FIFA’s technical study group after the naturalised US citizen - and World Cup winner with West Germany - suggested on BBC television that gamesmanship and referee-manipulation were part of Iran’s ‘culture’.
There had been further controversy when the US Soccer federation posted images of Iran’s flag, without the central emblem which was added to the flag by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1980, in what they said was a show of support for women in Iran fighting for basic human rights. The Iranian football federation had responded by demanding the US be banned for 10 matches and thrown out of the World Cup.
Iran’s supporters sounded fired up at the Al-Thumama Stadium and easily drowned out the smaller US contingent with chants, drums and vuvuzelas. There was no evidence of any fractures in the mass support for the team. If there is one thing that unites most Iranians today, it’s that it is better to beat the United States in the World Cup than to lose to them.
But Iran proved unable to replicate their famous victory over the US in the 1998 World Cup. The new generation of Americans simply had too much quality.
“Ferraris,” was how Queiroz described the swift American forwards, but it was the technically adept US midfielders who made the difference. When Queiroz said before the match that the Americans have “jumped from soccer to football”, it sounded like he might be trying out some mind-games, but in the end their performance justified his praise.
In 1998, Queiroz had been commissioned by US Soccer to write a report on elite player development, so he can depart this World Cup claiming a small share of credit for the evident improvement since then of the American national team.