No international incidents beyond yellow cards.
No diplomatic dust-ups except for rants at the referee.
You went to watch world tension Tuesday and a soccer game broke out. Thankfully, wonderfully, significantly, everyone shut up and dribbled on the field — and more importantly off it — in a manner to appreciate and American soccer could celebrate.
U.S. 1, Iran 0.
The American players dropped to the field in exhaustion as much as exhilaration when the final whistle blew at the World Cup game in Qatar, and it was the same at watch parties across America. The big stage, the tough match, the boiling heat, the important win, even Christian Pulisic’s injury-inducing goal — it was most entertaining soccer theater for a broader American audience since Ted Lasso.
This wasn’t just the most consequential win for U.S. soccer in the eight years since they last played in a World Cup. It was relief, too, for the youngest team in the tournament to reclaim success on this stage after missing the previous World Cup.
All the build-up to Tuesday centered on doctored or burning flags, on tense political relations between Iran and the United States, so this had a chance not to be a mortality play about working hard and not giving up.
These were two teams who represented more than their countries, as some saw it. They represented what their countries represented, too, even if Iran’s players went out of their way to separate their team from their country’s regime.
Put down the flags for a moment. You had to admire these Iranian players, even if you question the nation they represent. These players didn’t sing their national anthem as a statement against Iran’s oppressive government in a previous game. One of their top players reportedly didn’t make the team because of his public statements.
Some talk of “courage” in sport as controlling nerves to sink a late free throw or 6-foot putt. These players were the definition of sports courage. They return home now to … exactly what? Who knows? And the world will have stopped watching.
The American players, too, couldn’t have acted better when thrown in a cauldron of controversy by their soccer federation for doctoring a photo of the Iranian flag. The idea was to support women in a country that treats them as if it’s the 13th century. The upshot was a diplomatic firestorm.
The day before the game, an Iranian journalist asked coach Gregg Berhalter and midfielder Tyler Adams about mis-pronouncing the country’s name, an American naval fleet in the Persian Gulf, high inflation and racism in America. Their answers were thoughtful and thankful.
Sports and politics have mixed at international events since Jesse Owens, the Black American sprinter, won gold medals in the face of white-supremacist Adolf Hitler at the 1936 Belin Olympics. They created magical moments like the U.S. hockey team defeating the Soviet Union in the Miracle on Ice at the 1980 Olympics.
This wasn’t that, thank goodness. The two coaches embraced before the game. The players had collisions chasing a ball, not pushing any ideology. There even was the normal second-guessing of Berhalter’s substitutions at this tournament.
It was a game for the ages as much as win America needed to advance. The U.S. team dominated play in the first half in good part because Iran adopted a defensive style knowing it just needed a tie to advance. That changed when Pulisic scored while colliding with the Iranian goalkeeper and had to leave the game with an abdominal injury.
“The first half we showed what we can do soccer wise,’’ Berhalter said. “The second half showed what we can do determination-wise. The guys grinded. We’re undefeated and heading to the next round.”
You couldn’t have blinders on about the possibility of international consequence in the U.S. win Tuesday. Now it plays the Netherlands on Saturday morning in a game that’s just a game, one relative soccer newcomer against a known commodity with no questions of flags, military or the pronunciation of either country’s name.
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