US and Iran renew World Cup rivalry amid nuclear talks

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DOHA, Qatar (AFP) — The United States and Iran go into the World Cup with political and football grudges that their coaches, Gregg Berhalter and Dragan Skocic, are keen to defuse before the teams meet in November.

They will meet in Group B at the World Cup in Qatar, and will also face England, and potentially Ukraine, in what could be the most eye-catching first-round fixtures.

The United States has been a diplomatic rival of Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. On the pitch, Iran beat the Americans in the 1998 World Cup when the two teams exchanged roses before the game.

Berhalter doesn’t believe the bouquets will be seen this time around. He doesn’t want to talk politics either.

“It was a nice gesture at the time, but everyone has moved on. Iran is focused on doing a good job at the World Cup and we are focused on the same,” he said after the groups were drawn in Doha.

Berhalter did not play, but remembers the loss to Lyon in 1998 which excluded the United States from the tournament.

Brian McBride, who scored the American goal, is now the national team’s general manager. Mehdi Mahdavikia, who scored Iran’s second goal, is part of Iran’s coaching staff.

“It was a game where I don’t think we played well and we ended up losing,” said Berhalter, who played 44 games with Team USA and became national coach in 2018.

World Cup Group B teams England, Iran, USA and a European qualifier are seen during the FIFA World Cup 2022 draw at the Exhibition and Convention Center in Doha, Qatar, April 1, 2022. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

Political football

“I give Iran a lot of credit for their spirit and performance in this match.”

But he added that “football transcends a lot of political things”.

“It’s history, it was 24 years ago and for us it’s about what’s next.”

Skocic took a similar view of ongoing hostilities with US efforts to limit Iran’s nuclear program.

“I don’t care about that. Of course there is a story, but we focus on the game,” said the Croatian coach of Iran.

The United States also have a long World Cup history with England.

They beat England in 1950 in one of the tournament’s biggest clashes and drew 1-1 with them in their first match at the 2010 World Cup.

England manager Gareth Southgate says he met Berhalter just a few weeks ago for a long chat about football, so the two ‘smiled’ when they were brought together. The England-USA game would be “intriguing”, he said, alongside the possibility of a qualifier between Ukraine, Scotland or Wales.

Berhalter again sought to avoid emotion, insisting there was a great deal of respect for the Southgate team.

“It will be the second game in the group,” said the man who played a season for Crystal Palace in the English second division.

“Our goal is to get through the group, so we’ll have to see how the first game goes for both teams.”

The World Cup would produce “beautiful confrontations but also great possibilities.

“We have a young team, probably the youngest in the World Cup and we can’t wait to get started.”

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