DOHA: Twenty-four years after their first World Cup meeting billed as the “Mother of all football matches”, Iran and the United States face off in a politically-charged showdown on Tuesday with a place in the knockout rounds up for grabs.
Decades of mutual enmity between the arch geopolitical foes is the backdrop to what promises to be a white-hot sporting occasion at Doha’s Al Thumama Stadium.
In the context of the tournament, the stakes are simple — a win for either team secures a place in the last 16 while defeat will guarantee elimination.
But the wider significance of the Group B contest is less clear-cut.
The United States and Iran have been bitter ideological enemies for more than four decades, severing diplomatic relations after the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Quite what bearing that has on a 90-minute World Cup football match involving 22 players remains to be seen.
United States coach Gregg Berhalter has been at pains to dampen down suggestions that the game carries a political dimension.
“I envision the game being hotly contested for the fact that both teams want to advance to the next round — not because of politics or because of relations between our countries,” Berhalter said.
“We’re soccer players and we’re going to compete and they’re going to compete and that’s it.”
Yet Berhalter’s desire for politics to be absent from the occasion may be wishful thinking.
A rare public relations gaffe by US Soccer — posting a modified version of Iran’s national flag on the US team’s social media feeds in what it said was a gesture of solidarity with Iranian women protesters — has infuriated football authorities in Tehran.
The offending post was removed from official US Soccer feeds on Sunday after the Iran Football Federation lodged a complaint with world governing body FIFA.
The controversy almost certainly guarantees that what was already shaping as a nail-biting showdown on Tuesday is likely to carry a crackle of political tension.
Handshakes and roses
That was certainly the case when Iran and the USA met for the first time at the 1998 World Cup in France, the Iranians claiming a memorable 2-1 victory at the Stade Gerland in Lyon.