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USA and Iran renew World Cup rivalry against backdrop of nuclear talks

Iran famously beat the Americans at 1998 World Cup, when two sides exchanged roses beforehand, but US coach confident Tehran will not enjoy a repeat

Left, Iran's soccer players Saman Ghoddoos, top, Amir Abed Zadeh, bottom, and Hossein Kanani celebrate qualifying for 2022 World Cup after defeating Iraq, at the Azadi stadium in Tehran, Iran on January 27, 2022. Right, United States' Christian Pulisic (10) shoots on goal as Costa Rica's Carlos Martinez tries to block during a qualifying soccer match for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 in San Jose, Costa Rica on March 30, 2022. (Collage/AP//Vahid Salem and Moises Castillo)
Left, Iran's soccer players Saman Ghoddoos, top, Amir Abed Zadeh, bottom, and Hossein Kanani celebrate qualifying for 2022 World Cup after defeating Iraq, at the Azadi stadium in Tehran, Iran on January 27, 2022. Right, United States' Christian Pulisic (10) shoots on goal as Costa Rica's Carlos Martinez tries to block during a qualifying soccer match for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 in San Jose, Costa Rica on March 30, 2022. (Collage/AP//Vahid Salem and Moises Castillo)

DOHA, Qatar (AFP) — The United States and Iran go into the World Cup with political and soccer grudges that their coaches, Gregg Berhalter and Dragan Skocic, are keen to defuse before the teams meet in November.

They will meet in Group B at the World Cup in Qatar, and also play England, and potentially Ukraine, in what could be the first-round matches that draw most of the spotlight.

The United States has been a diplomatic arch-rival of Iran since the Islamic revolution in 1979. On the pitch, Iran famously beat the Americans at the 1998 World Cup when the two sides exchanged roses before the game.

Berhalter does not believe that bouquets will be seen this time. Nor does he want to talk about the politics.

“It was a nice gesture at the time, but everyone has moved on. Iran is focused on doing a good job at the World Cup and we are focused on the same thing,” he said after the groups were drawn in Doha.

Berhalter did not play, but remembers the defeat in Lyon in 1998 that booted the United States out of the tournament.

Brian McBride, who scored the US goal, is now the national team’s general manager. Mehdi Mahdavikia, who scored Iran’s second goal, is on the Iran coaching staff.

“It was a match where I don’t think we performed well and we ended up losing,” said Berhalter, who played 44 games for the US side and became national coach in 2018.

World Cup group B teams, England, Iran, USA and a European qualifier are seen during the 2022 soccer World Cup draw at the Doha Exhibition and Convention Center in Doha, Qatar, April 1, 2022. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

Political football

“I give Iran a lot of credit for their spirit and how they performed in that game.”

But he added that “football transcends a lot of the political stuff.”

“That’s history, that was 24 years ago and for us it is about what comes next.”

Skocic took a similar view of the hostilities that continue with US efforts to constrain Iran’s nuclear program.

“I don’t care about this. Of course there is a story, but we are focused on the playing,” said Iran’s Croatian coach.

The United States also has a longstanding World Cup history with England.

They beat England in 1950 in one of the biggest shocks the tournament has known and drew 1-1 with them in their first game at the 2010 World Cup.

England coach Gareth Southgate said he met Berhalter only a few weeks back for a long soccer talk, so the two were “smiling” when they were drawn together. The England-US match would be “intriguing,” he said, alongside the possibility of meeting a qualifier between Ukraine, Scotland or Wales.

Berhalter again sought to avoid the emotion, insisting that there was a lot of respect for Southgate’s side.

“It will the second game in the group,” said the man who played one season for Crystal Palace in England’s second tier.

“Our aim is to get through the group, so we will have to see how the first game goes for both teams.”

The World Cup would produce “some great matchups but also some great possibilities.

“We have a young team, probably the youngest team in the World Cup and we are looking forward to getting started.”

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