ALL roads led to Al Thumama Stadium on Tuesday night, the tension palpable in the air, the sense of occasion overwhelming. There has been so much before, there will be so much more after but this felt like the end of the world; last-16 heaven and salvation in store for the victors, end of the road for the losers.
It was a battle of attrition on the pitch between geo-political rivals Iran and the United States, 90 minutes of mayhem eventually settled by a goal by Christian Pulisic, who put his body on the line to turn in a header by Serginho Dest in the 38th minute. The 1-0 victory meant the US finished second in Group ‘B’ and advanced to a round-of-16 tie against the Netherlands while Iran’s journey came to an end.
It’s not often that football throws up fixtures so deeply interlaced with political rivalry but here, in the middle of the Arabian desert, at football’s grandest stage, teams from two countries with no diplomatic relations since 1980 slugging it out for the right to remain in Qatar.
It couldn’t have been a more compelling setting; the 44,000-seater stadium shaped like the traditional Arab cap worn by men abuzz with activity, a cacophony of noise.
The last time these two sides had met at the World Cup, 24 years ago in France, Iran’s players had given their American counterparts white roses as diplomatic tensions between them had reduced. There was no such thing this time.
Former US coach Juergen Klinsmann, a World Cup winner with Germany, had stirred up this tie when he’d said in television comments that it was in the Iranian culture to heckle the referees that forced them to lose focus, provoking a strong reaction from Iran coach Carlos Queiroz who invited Klinsmann to attend an Iran training session but only after he resigns from Fifa’s Technical Study Group.
Tensions had been simmering even before that after the United States Soccer Federation had removed the Islamic emblem from the Iranian flag in a social media post. US coach Gregg Berhalter was forced to apologise. He and his captain Tyler Adams underwent an extensive grilling on the eve of the game by Iranian reporters. Adams, who is Black, was asked how it felt to be in a racist country.
But here was Adams, celebrating at the final whistle, sinking to the ground before being embraced by his team-mates.
Iran, playing in Qatar under the shadow of widespread protests by women’s rights activists back home, knew a draw would take them through and it was the US who came out with more intent; attacking the Iranians from all angles but missing the final pass.
But the spectre of the game changed after Pulisic’s goal; the American forward being substituted at half-time after a collision with Iranian goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand as he steered the ball into the net.
Knowing they had to score, Iran piled men forward in the second half; half-time substitute Saman Ghoddos guilty of missing two gilt-edged chances.
Tempers flared as the clock ticked down, their fans tried to raise the volume to rouse up their players for one last go and in the dying minutes, they had a loud penalty call turned down. The referee deemed contact wasn’t enough. The goal they wanted never came.