Christian Pulisic wasn’t born the last time the United States played Iran at a World Cup. But, 24 years on from ‘the mother of games’, he was the hero of the piece as his side gained a measure of revenge and a place in the last-16 in Qatar.
His winning goal, just before half-time of this 1-0 win at Thumama Stadium, gave the US the three points they needed to progress in second place from Group B alongside England, a third spot in the knockout rounds in as many tournaments.
He had come close against the Three Lions four days ago, hitting Jordan Pickford’s crossbar in a game the US could and should have won, but made no mistake when presented with the best opening in this one to score a first-ever World Cup goal.
The injury gained while firing home and that forced him off here will have a country sweating between now and a date with the Netherlands on Saturday, but that can wait for another day after a hard-earned and highly-charged victory that will be felt from Texas to Tehran.
“Why is it that you should not ask your government to take away its military fleet from the Persian Gulf?”, coach Gregg Berhalter was asked in his pre-match press conference. The question, about as far away from team news and tactics as you can get, succinctly set the scene ahead of this most political of contests in this or any sporting competition’s history.
Both sides had attempted to play down the tinderbox backdrop in the build-up, Iran, playing at this World Cup with the worst anti-government protests in more than 40 years unfolding back home. The civil unrest following the death of 22-year-old Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini while in custody has seen at least 451 people killed since protests began in September, as well as more than 18,000 arrested, the situation described as a “fully-fledged human rights crisis” by the UN.
The team playing here in Qatar under all that weight had shown support for protesters ahead of the opening game with England, staying silent as their national anthem was played but, just as they did against Wales, they reluctantly sang again here amid claims of threats of violence and warnings to “behave” from the state.
Berhalter’s counterpart, Carlos Queiroz, had not helped tensions beforehand, first in a social media row with German legend – and former US coach – Jurgen Klinsmann, and then with a thinly-veiled dig when referencing “human rights, racism and kids dying in schools with shootings” in his own press availability. US Soccer themselves had earlier removed the emblem of the Islamic Republic from the Iranian flag on social media for 24 hours before the game to “show support for the women in Iran fighting for basic human rights”.
The two sides posed for a joint team photograph and exchanged white roses back in 1998. In that match – a famous 2-1 win for Iran – players “did more in 90 minutes than the politicians did in 20 years,” it would later be observed. The fallout to this one remains to be seen.
Needing the win to secure progression, the US started the stronger, the bright Yunus Musah lashing over on the volley after smart work from Pulisic before roles reversed for Pulisic to head the first effort on target, the returning Alireza Beiranvand in goal making a routine save.
Antonee Robinson and Sergino Dest were a constant and live threat on the flanks as the US continued to play on the front foot, the pair both flashing dangerous crosses into the box with no reward before Timothy Weah, scorer against Wales, should’ve done better when firing straight at Beiranvand after a Josh Sargent shot was blocked.
Their positivity, however, would soon be rewarded. Pulisic hadn’t scored a goal for his country away from American soil for five years but picked a perfect time to break his duck, timing his run into the six-yard box to bravely turn in Dest’s well judged header back.
He would limp off, the collision with Beiranvand after ball had hit the net forcing an early end to his night. Weah thought he had added a second moments later only for the linesman’s flag to chalk off a fine poked finish into the far corner.
With Wales losing, Iran needed just a point, just a goal. Brentford’s Saman Ghoddos, thrown on at the break, went close as they pushed to get it, heading over their best opportunity of the game shortly after his arrival. A second effort, slashed wide of the post, soon followed. The partisan crowd, buoyed at last by some long-needed intent on the pitch, responded to their team, the noise level from the stands that had soundtracked much of the game upped a decibel or 10.
That three of their four goals at this tournament had come after the 90th minute ensured hope would not fade, this team with so very much to play for giving everything they had to the last. But, unlike so famously against Wales, time would run out this time, defender Morteza Pouraliganji heading the last chance of all just wide, this journey in Qatar at an end.
The US continues. And, as so many times before, they have Pulisic to thank.