DOHA, Qatar — Those last few minutes, the ones in which everything the United States has worked for was close enough to touch, seemed to stretch on and on into the night. The clock refused to tick. There was always another attack to repel, another ball to clear, another scare to survive.
Eight years since it last played a knockout game at the World Cup, four years since it was forced to endure the stinging humiliation of watching the tournament from home, the country’s men’s team was on the brink of laying the ghosts to rest. It held a slender, single-goal lead against Iran, thanks to the self-sacrificing courage of Christian Pulisic. That was enough. All it had to do was hold on.
Ever since that night five years ago in Couva, Trinidad, when it had all gone wrong, the question has been whether the United States has sufficiently gifted players to compete with the game’s superpowers. The relative ability of Pulisic, Tyler Adams and Weston McKennie is pored over, their every flaw prized open, their every strength judged and weighed.
Those last few minutes, though, were not about talent. They were, instead, the most thorough examination imaginable of Gregg Berhalter’s team’s poise, and composure, and grit. They were a test of nerve. It is to their immense credit that they passed and now have a meeting with the Netherlands on Saturday in the next round.
Victory was not comfortable, not at all. There were moments when their hearts rose up into their mouths, moments when their legs seemed heavy and their minds weary, moments when they had to fight off the siren call of blind panic. But then, it could not be any other way. It would not be a test if it were easy.
This remains an intensely young team, one that has been designed at least in part with the next World Cup, four years away and (mostly) on home soil, in mind. That they weathered what is most likely the most stressful situation any of them have experienced is to their enormous credit.
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The circumstance was exacting enough. Two draws in its opening two games had left Berhalter’s team with no choice but to beat Iran if it wanted to qualify. There was no back door, no shortcut, to the knockout rounds. The opponent, though, compounded the tension.
In April, when the draw for the group phase was made, the prospect of the United States’ meeting Iran was billed — as it was always going to be — as a chance to distill a complex, long-running political enmity into a 90-minute soccer match, international diplomacy conducted through the medium of corner kicks.
By the time it arrived, though, the situation had changed. The protests that have roiled Iran for the past 10 weeks following the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish woman, while in the custody of Iran’s morality police, and the brutal crackdown the regime has delivered in response, had threatened to turn what was always going to be a particularly charged game into a potential political incident.
For much of the past week, Berhalter and his players have found themselves caught in a tit-for-tat exchange of jibes and accusations. Adams, his captain, was asked how he could in all good conscience represent a country where systemic racism remained rife, a direct retaliation for Iran’s coach, Carlos Queiroz, being grilled on his employment by a regime that infringes the rights of women.
At one point, when U.S. Soccer’s website removed the national emblem of Iran from the country’s flag and posted the doctored image on social media, the Iranian federation demanded that the U.S. be thrown out of the World Cup in response. The pressure on Berhalter’s young squad, already crushing, mounted.
It is nothing, though, compared to what Iran’s players have endured. This World Cup, what should have been one of the highlights of their careers, has been a torment for them. They were forced to play their final tuneup games before the tournament behind closed doors, in case anti-government protesters filled the stands. They were banned from discussing the demonstrations, either in public or on social media, by their national federation.
Once they arrived in Qatar, they found themselves in an inescapable bind. The unrest at home followed them across the Gulf. Fans brought flags stripped of the national emblem, or versions bearing the insignia of prerevolutionary Iran, to games. They wore T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan “Women, Life, Freedom.”
FIFA, together with the Qatari authorities, issued an edict that anything that could be seen as a political statement must be confiscated. FIFA does not choose sides, of course, far from it, but still: Iranian flags with the national emblem on them were absolutely fine.
Fans sought whatever way they could to circumvent the censorship. They whistled and jeered their own national anthem. They painted their faces with tears. There were whispers that the regime had flown hundreds of loyalists in to pick out troublemakers.
At home, Iranians debated whether the team’s success was beneficial to the demonstrators or to the authorities. Its victories might, after all, be co-opted as propaganda. But the longer it stayed in, the more the spotlight would shine on the silencing of dissent in the stands.
Team Melli, as Iran’s national side is affectionately known, was supposed to be one of the few symbols that belonged to the people, rather than the state. The players, though, found themselves trapped.
Before their first game, a defeat to the eventual group winner, England, the players refused to sing the anthem, a gesture of solidarity with the protests. They were immediately branded traitors at home. Before the second, a victory over Wales, they did sing. They were immediately accused of betraying the people.
That they had not buckled, that they had reached the final game with their hopes of reaching the knockout rounds intact, that they got to within a bounce of the ball, a stroke of good fortune, a contested penalty call of making it, was an act of quite astonishing perseverance. For Iran, there could never be enough time.
When it ended, when a shrill whistle burst through the cacophony of horns that had been the soundtrack of the game, the United States’ players rushed to celebrate with their fans, basking in the glory they have worked so hard to achieve.
At the other end of the stadium, Iran’s players sank to the ground, their chests heaving, their eyes full of tears, unable to move. Only Mehdi Taremi, the striker, remained standing, arguing with the referee.
When he was finished, he walked over to the few hundred Iranian fans who remained. Some of their flags boasted the national emblem. Some simply read “Iran.” Together with his teammates, he offered his thanks, applauding their effort, their noise, and apologizing for falling short. For a moment, for the first time in a long time, players and fans were together as one, in disappointment, in sorrow.