DOHA, Qatar — Iranian media grilled U.S. men’s national team head coach Gregg Berhalter and midfielder Tyler Adams at an extremely political and often absurd news conference on the eve of a crucial World Cup showdown between the two nations.
Berhalter appeared to grow frustrated here at the Qatar National Convention Center as questions about U.S.-Iran relations and about U.S. Soccer’s alteration of the Iran flag in social media graphics piled up.
He reiterated multiple times that he and players “had no idea about what U.S. Soccer put out,” which the federation said was a statement in support of the Iranian women’s rights movement, and which it later took down amid backlash. At one point, Berhalter said: “All we can do, on our behalf, is apologize on behalf of the players and the staff.”
But no matter what he said; and no matter how often he deflected questions about politics, at one point saying “I'm a soccer coach,” the questions kept on coming.
They came almost exclusively from members of the Iranian media, some of whom are state-affiliated, some of whom operate independently but under tight government restrictions on the press. Iran ranks 178th out of 180 countries in the Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index.
Some Iranian reporters applauded Iran coach Carlos Queiroz and forward Karim Ansarifard before and after their news conference on Monday afternoon. An hour later, they scolded Adams for pronouncing “Iran” incorrectly; they asked Berhalter why people with an Iranian passport can’t travel to the U.S; they asked him, through a translator, why he hadn’t told the U.S. government “to take away its military fleet from the Persian Gulf”; and they created an atmosphere unlike any that U.S. Soccer officials had ever seen.
They asked Berhalter about Jurgen Klinsmann’s “psychological warfare” and comments that have been labeled racist. (Klinsmann, a German, was fired by U.S. Soccer in 2016, and has not been affiliated with the federation since.)
They accused Berhalter and U.S. Soccer of being “unprofessional” for closing training after 15 minutes on Sunday night — as U.S. Soccer always does, and as most teams do, in line with FIFA rules.
They stated, bafflingly, that there’s “no support of your team” back in America amid “the high rise of inflation and economic problems,” to which Berhalter responded that 19 million people watched the U.S.-England game. When he concluded his answer, USMNT press officer Michael Kammarman jumped in to say, “the figure was 20 million,” which drew chuckles from the room.
They asked Adams a question that reeked of implicit whataboutism, about whether he feels comfortable representing a country that discriminates “against Black people in its own borders.” Adams handled it and all other questions with remarkable poise.
When he was corrected by a reporter on his pronunciation of Iran — “first of all, you say you support the Iranian people, but you're pronouncing our country's name wrong. Our country is named ee-RAHN, not I-RAN. Please, once and for all, let's get this clear” — he responded: “My apologies on the mispronunciation of your country.”
With the final question of the news conference, an Iranian reporter asked a question that had just been asked a few minutes ago, about the 1998 World Cup match between the U.S. and Iran. Berhalter, a bit exasperated, responded: “Yes, as I stated two questions previously, I do remember the game, I commentated on the game,” and so on.
Adams, who was born in 1999, said: “Yeah … I wasn't born yet, so — don't remember it.” He smiled.
In one of many questions referencing U.S. Soccer’s scrubbing of the Islamic Republic emblem and the takbir from Iran’s flag, a reporter, explained that, “if you take away the very sacred word of Allah from the country, it's an insult.” He then asked whether U.S. Soccer’s statement would be a disadvantage in Tuesday’s game, or whether it would “boost morale.”
“I can only reiterate that the players and the staff knew nothing about what was being posted,” Berhalter said. “Sometimes things are out of our control.”
Berhalter went on to say that the result would depend on what happens on the field, not off it. Queiroz agreed.
“If after 42 years in this game, I still believe that I could win games with those mental games,” Queiroz said, “I think I did not learn [anything] about the game.”