Only one of them can go through from Group B, in a football match that is inevitably being viewed through the prism of politics.
Who: Iran vs USA
Where: Al Thumama Stadium in Al Thumama, Qatar
When: Tuesday, November 29 at 10pm (19:00 GMT)
FIFA ranking: Iran (20), USA (16)
A grudge match between Iran and the USA, two countries divided by politics and a history of enmity, brought together by the World Cup draw for a rare matchup, in a game seized upon by partisans on both sides to denounce their opponent.
That was how the game was billed at the 1998 World Cup, when Iran went on to win 2-1 over the Americans. And while some supporters of Iran’s government used the win as evidence of their country’s inevitable victory over the “Great Satan”, it was also seen by others as an opportunity to show that the beautiful game could overcome divisions, emblemised by a pre-match photo with players from both teams intermingled amongst each other.
Fast forward to 2022, and the two have been drawn together again in the group stage. The political divide is still there – and if anything, it’s more entrenched.
Iran and the USA can’t find agreement on a nuclear deal, leaving the former under the latter’s sanctions. Anti-government protests in Iran have attracted the world’s attention and the condemnation of the United States government. The Iranians accuse the Americans of being among those behind the protests.
And even since the World Cup began, there have been controversies. Iran has asked for the USA to be thrown out of the tournament after a US Soccer social media post used an altered version of the Iranian flag. And the former USA manager, the German Jurgen Klinsmann, has angered Iran by saying that unsportsmanlike behaviour was part of Iran’s “culture” while speaking to the BBC.
Iranian fans, for their part, are still divided over whether to even support the team, in light of the protests calling for women’s rights in Iran. Some in the anti-government camp fear that an Iranian victory over the USA will be used by the government for propaganda.
All of that, and we haven’t even got to the footballing permutations of this game.
Barring what would be a surprise victory for Wales in their game against England, the USA has to win to go through to the World Cup’s knock-out stages, while the Iranians only need a draw.
That puts Iran’s manager Carlos Queiroz in a bind. Play to his own defensive instincts, and go for the draw, while betting on the English avoiding a loss? Or play to Iran’s attacking strengths, with star strikers Sardar Azmoun and Mehdi Taremi up top? Both of them can be deadly. Taremi already has two goals in the World Cup, and has scored five goals in five games for his club, FC Porto, in the Champions League this season.
As happy as the Americans will have been with their performance against England on Friday, where they held the higher-ranked side to a draw, this will be a different type of game, and they will be forced to take the game to the Iranians. The hope will be that the USA central midfield of Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams and the particularly impressive Yunus Musah will be able to repeat their performance against England, when they largely won the battle in the middle of the park and repeatedly turned the ball over to allow Christian Pulisic to run at England’s defence.
The manner in which the USA kept England quiet compared to the English thumping of Iran in the opening round of fixtures will give the Americans the confidence that they can beat the Iranians. But Iran’s win against Wales appears to be a truer reflection of their abilities than the humiliation against England.
And with the Americans forced to chase a goal to have any hope of going through, the USA defence will have to keep Azmoun and Taremi quiet – which will be easier said than done. Leaving the geopolitics aside even for 90 minutes? That might be even harder.