DOHA, Qatar — The news conference was ostensibly about a soccer game, but the match was the last thing on the mind of the Iranian reporter as he rose to speak. Gripping the microphone, he set aside his question and instead started with a scolding.
“Our country is named ih-RAHN, not EYE-ran,” he lectured the United States captain Tyler Adams. “Please, once and for all, let’s get this clear.”
Only then did he offer a question that signaled this was not to be a routine afternoon on the podium.
“Are you OK,” the reporter asked Adams, a Black man who grew up in a white family, “to be representing a country that has so much discrimination against Black people in its own borders?”
On the eve of a critical World Cup match with abounding political and competitive ramifications, Adams, his teammates and their coaches on the United States national team on Monday found themselves caught in the middle of a diplomatic feud they had neither started nor wanted. At their prematch news conference, amid questions that ranged from soccer tactics to U.S. Navy maneuvers, they distanced themselves from social media posts made by their soccer federation over the weekend that showed support for the women of Iran by doctoring that country’s flag.
Gregg Berhalter, the United States coach, said that neither he nor any players were involved with the decision to remove Iran’s official emblem and two lines of Islamic script from its flag in posts on Twitter and Instagram, but offered an apology on behalf of the team anyway.
“We had no idea about what U.S. Soccer put out — the staff, the players, had no idea,” Berhalter said.
But he also tried, in vain, to steer the conversation away from politics.
“Our focus is on this match,” he said. “I don’t want to sound aloof or not caring by saying that, but the guys have worked really hard for the last four years. We have 72 hours between England and Iran, and we really are just focused on how to get past Iran and go to the knockout stage of this tournament. Of course, our thoughts are with the Iranian people, the whole country, the whole team, everyone, but our focus is on this match.”
Iran condemned U.S. Soccer’s decision to use an incorrect flag, an action that it said violated the statutes of FIFA, world soccer’s global governing body. The American federation, which has acknowledged the decision to use the altered flag was intentional, deleted the posts Sunday and said it would use only Iran’s official flag going forward.
“The intent of the post was to show support for women’s rights,” Michael Kammarman, a U.S. Soccer spokesman, said Monday. “It was meant to be a moment. We made the post at the time. All of the other representations of the flag were made consistent and will continue.”
Iran, however, was less eager to move on. On Sunday, a representative of its soccer federation said Iran planned to file a complaint with FIFA, world soccer’s governing body, seeking to have the United States thrown out of the World Cup. (FIFA had no comment on the dispute, and such a request was almost certain to be rejected in any event.)
And on Monday, Berhalter and Adams faced pointed questions from Iranian reporters about topics that included not only racial discrimination in the U.S. but also the presence of an American naval fleet in the Persian Gulf; high inflation; and why Iranians need a visa to visit the United States.
The exchange between the reporter and Adams soon went viral online.
“My apologies on the mispronunciation of your country,” Adams began his answer, before offering a nuanced response about his own experiences growing up “in a white family with, obviously, an African American heritage.”
The Americans, after failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, can advance to the knockout rounds from Group B by defeating Iran, which would also progress with a victory or — in the right circumstances — a tie.
Over the past few months, and certainly at this World Cup, the Iranian team has become entangled with its country’s harsh treatment of women and its crackdowns on personal freedoms under theocratic rule. The team engaged in protests of its own after the September death in police custody of Mahsa Amini, 22, who had been arrested on charges of violating a law requiring head coverings for women.
After refusing to sing the national anthem before its opening match, against England, the Iranian team appeared to join in before its next game, against Wales, with varying degrees of enthusiasm and commitment.
“We can’t speak for them and their message,” U.S. defender Walker Zimmerman said. “We know that they’re all emotional. They’re going through things right now. They’re human, and, again, we empathize with that human emotion. So we completely feel for them.”