DOHA, Qatar – Iranian media slammed US men’s team head coach Gregg Berhalter and linebacker Tyler Adams at a highly political and often absurd press conference on the eve of a showdown between the two countries at the World Cup.
Berhalter appeared to be frustrated here at the Qatar National Convention Center as questions piled up about U.S.-Iran relations and US Soccer’s changing Iranian flag in social media graphics.
He repeated several times that he and the players “didn’t have a clue what US Soccer was putting out”, which the federation said was a statement in support of the Iranian women’s rights movement, which was later withdrawn due to backlash. At one point, Berhalter said, “All we can do on our behalf is to apologize on behalf of the players and staff.”
But whatever he says; and no matter how much he evaded questions about politics, at one point saying, “I’m a football coach,” the questions kept coming.
They came almost exclusively from members of the Iranian media, some of which are state-affiliated, some operate independently, but under heavy government restrictions on the press. Iran ranks 178th out of 180 countries in the world. Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index.
Some Iranian reporters applauded Iran coach Carlos Queiroz and striker Karim Ansarifard before and after their press conference on Monday afternoon. An hour later, they scolded Adams for mispronouncing the word “Iran”; they asked Berhalter why people with an Iranian passport could not travel to the US; they asked him through an interpreter why he did not tell the US government to “remove their navy from the Persian Gulf”; and they created an atmosphere unlike any US Soccer officials have ever seen.
They asked Berhalter about Jürgen Klinsmann’s “psychological warfare” and comments that were called racist. (Klinsmann, who is German, was fired from US Soccer in 2016 and has not been affiliated with the federation since.)
They accused Berhalter and US Soccer of being “unprofessional” in closing practice after 15 minutes on Sunday night – as US Soccer always does and as most teams do under FIFA rules.
They stated in puzzlement that there was “no support for your team” in America amid “high inflation and economic problems”, to which Berhalter replied that 19 million people watched the game between the US and England. As he finished his response, USMNT spokesman Michael Cammarman stepped in and said, “The figure was 20 million,” which drew chuckles from the audience.
They asked Adams a question that reeked of implicit “how about, what about if he feels comfortable representing a country that discriminates against ‘black people within its own borders’.” Adams handled this and all other issues with amazing poise.
When the reporter corrected him in the pronunciation of Iran: “Firstly, you say you support the Iranian people, but you mispronounce the name of our country. Our country is called ee-RAHN, not I-RAN. Please, once and for all, let’s clear this up,” he replied, “I apologize for the mispronunciation of your country.”
In the closing question of the press conference, an Iranian reporter asked a question that was asked a few minutes ago about the 1998 World Cup match between the US and Iran. Berhalter, a little annoyed, replied: “Yes, as I asked two questions earlier, I remember the game, I commented on the game” and so on.
Adams, who was born in 1999, said: “Yeah… I wasn’t born yet, so I don’t remember.” He smiled.
In one of many questions regarding US Soccer’s removal of the Islamic Republic emblem and takbir from the flag of Iran, the reporter explained that: “If you take away the most sacred word of Allah from the country, it will be an insult.” He then asked if US Soccer’s announcement on Tuesday would be a downside or if it would “boost morale.”
“I can only reiterate that the players and staff knew nothing about what was being published,” Berhalter said. “Sometimes things get out of our control.”
Berhalter went on to say that the result will depend on what happens on the field, not off the field. Queiroz agreed.
“If after 42 years in this game I still believe I can win games with these mind games,” Queiroz said, “I think I haven’t learned [anything] about the game”.