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Pulisic's first-half goal sends USA through and ends Iran's extraordinary World Cup
The USA will face the Netherlands in the last-16 after a 1-0 win.

IR Iran 0


IRAN’S EXTRAORDINARY WORLD Cup has lasted eight days, the United States of America edging them in a hectic Group B crescendo to progress to a last-16 tie with the Netherlands. 

Christian Pulisic took a shuddering hit in scoring the game’s decisive goal, but it was a deserved win: first the USA preyed on Iran’s nerves to take the lead before then enduring their own to close out the win. 

Iran’s brief interest in the tournament will be remembered for some time, featuring as it did a 6-2 hammering and a redemptive 2-0 win along with brave protests by players and fans alike, scenes of joyous tears, tales of queasy fears, a public spat with Jurgen Klinsmann and a geopolitical grilling of the American coach and captain. 

The then-president of the US Federation referred to this as the ‘mother of all games’ when the sides first met back at the 1998 World Cup, but where that made incarnate almost two decades of enmity between the two countries, this was swamped in contemporary outrages and all kinds of convulsive sideshows. 

The Iran players disavowed the ruling regime cracking down so brutally on revolt by refusing to sing the national anthem on Monday, but listlessly moved their mouths to the words when lining up before the second group game against Wales. Striker Mehdi Taremi insisted they had not been put under any pressure before doing so, but a CNN report today claimed the players were told their families may be imprisoned if there was another show of protest.

The Iranian players sang the anthem again before tonight’s game but what differed this time was the the reaction of the Iran supporters: where they jeered and drowned it out in the previous two games, this time it was respectfully observed. There was a notably different hue to the Iranian support section than to the earlier games, with several national flags bearing the emblem of the Islamic regime draped at the front of the stand. 

To add to all of this: the US caused a frenzy in the lead-up to this game when their Twitter account published the Iranian flag without the insignia of its political rulers, which led Iran to lodge an official complaint with Fifa. The pre-game press conference was another curious kind of theatre, as Carlos Queiroz was applauded by a section of the room when he effectively said everyone at a World Cup should stick to sport while US coach Gregg Berhalter and captain Tyler Adams were met by a barrage of questions from topics as diverse and specific as systematic racism in America to the presence of a military fleet in the Persian gulf. 

With all the talking done, the match atmosphere was cacophonous, scored to the ambient, ear-splitting sounds of screams and vuvuzelas.  

The football stakes were lower than those of its backdrop but they were crystal clear: the USA needed to win to qualify for the last-16, whereas Iran needed only a draw. Queiroz is a naturally cautious manager and that he started the game with something to lose bred the negativity that has become his hallmark. The USA, by contrast, zipped with intent,  full-backs Sergino Dest and Antonee Robinson tormenting Iran down the flanks. Dest looked a lot more dangerous than his opposite number, and his early cross was met by Christian Pulisic whose header floated tamely into the arms of Alizera Beiranvand, returning from the concussion he suffered against England. 

If Iran did set out to sit deep and smother the game they weren’t doing a very good job of it, and only US profligacy kept them level. When Josh Sargent saw his shot loop off Marteza Pouraliganji, Timothy Weah inexplicably decided to weakly head the ball from a standing start rather than shoot. With the intensity of the atmosphere belieing the quality of the game, the USA found the goal they deserved with their first moment of true quality. Weston McKennie was given too much time in midfield to ping the ball out to the wing to Dest, whose instant, square header was crashed into the net by Pulisic.

He followed the ball into the net and his goal came at a personal cost: if you picture Pulisic as Phil Babb, imagine the Iranian goalkeeper’s cocked knee as the post. Pulisic received treatment for a couple of minutes before gingerly returning to the pitch but didn’t reappear after half-time. 

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firo-11292022-football-soccer-fifa-world-cup-2022-qatar-world-cup-2022-qatar-world-cup-2022-qatar-group-stage-group-b-match-34-iran-usa DPA / PA Images Christian Pulisic scores the opening goal. DPA / PA Images / PA Images

Iran, now needing a goal, stepped up a little after half-time and Taremi soon had their fist attempt of the game, heading over from close range after the Tim Ream nervously hesitated in clearing a cross. The United States have a baffling habit of not performing in second-halves under Berhalter and their characteristic nerves consumed them since again, a flimsy state exacerbated by the losses of Pulisic and then Weston McKennie to injury. The fabulous McKennie should have been limping off with the scores level, as moments earlier substitute Saman Ghoddos whipped Ali Gholizadeh’s pass over the crossbar from inside the box. 

The USA had by now lost all grip of midfield and thus Berhalter decided squatting was the better course of action, bringing off Dest and Weah to switch to a back five. But though the USA invited Iran forward, Queiroz’ side’s quality abandoned them, their siege a litany of shanked crosses and skewed passes. 

The closest they came was when Morteza Pouraliganji stooped to meet a free-kick, heading narrowly wide. Ultimately Iran’s lack of quality meant they finished without even a shot on target, reduced in the end to chasing the referee in the hope of a blessing from VAR: Mehdi Taremi fell to ground in the box too easily after some contact from Cameron Carter-Vickers, but all officials were unmoved. 

The Iranian players wept at full-time, the final, tear-stained page of a brief but remarkable World Cup story. 

IR Iran: Alireza Beiranvand; Ramin Rezaeian, Majid Hosseini, Morteza Pouraliganji, Milad Mohammadi (Ali Karimi, 45′); Saeid Ezatolahi, Ahmad Noorollahi, Ehsan Hajisafi (captain) (Mehdi Torabi, 71′) ; Ali Gholizadeh (Jalai Borani, 71′), Sardar Azmoun (Saman Ghoddos, HT), Mehdi Taremi 

USA: Matt Turner; Sergino Dest (Walker Zimmerman, 81′), Cameron Carter-Vickers, Tim Ream, Antonee Robinson; Tyler Adams (captain), Yunus Musah, Weston McKennie (Kellyn Costa, 65′); Timothy Weah (Shaquell Moore, 82′), Josh Sargent, Christian Pulisic (Brendan Aaronsen, HT)


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