DOHA, Qatar — The job for the United States men’s soccer team was simple, really: Win.
The stakes and the stage and the politics all piled on the intrigue going into the game against Iran on Tuesday night at the World Cup: a clash between sides whose governments have long been at odds, an Iranian team scrutinized for any hint of allegiances in the antigovernment protests rocking their nation, and a perceived insult by the U.S. Soccer Federation days before the game.
But the task, at its heart, left no room for nuance at all: If the United States wanted to keep playing in the tournament in Qatar, it had to beat Iran. And so it did.
Though the American star Christian Pulisic was forced from the game at halftime with an injury sustained as he scored the game’s only goal, the 1-0 victory was a moment of redemption for a U.S. team that has been rebuilt since a stunning failure to qualify for the last World Cup in 2018. Though a new generation of talents has been unearthed and developed, many thought the Americans’ moment was still four years away, when they would be just a little older, a little more experienced, and playing on home soil in North America.
The players showed otherwise, fending off the attacking Iranian team and advancing to the round of 16. While the U.S. has won the last two Women’s World Cups, the men have not made it past the round of 16 since 2002.
“I looked around and saw everybody had calm faces on,” defender Tim Ream said of the pressure of holding the lead as the clocked ticked, and ticked, and ticked. “No one was breathing heavy, or had panic in their eyes.”
President Biden, who had just wrapped up an unrelated event in Michigan when the game ended, returned to the lectern to tell the audience, with a wide grin, of the American victory.
“They did it, God love ’em,” he said.
In sports bars and living rooms, politics added spice to the reactions for many fans. While fans around him chanted “U.S.A.!,” Carlos Vigueras, a server at Legends in Midtown Manhattan, said that the drama between the countries flavored the game for him and raised the stakes. “It makes it more intense, more entertaining, it has more meaning,” said Vigueras, a 25-year-old from the Bronx.
For the Iranian team, the tournament in Qatar has been a crucible. As protests and crackdowns have roiled their nation for months, its soccer players have found themselves trying to navigate an excruciating and shrinking middle ground.
On one side were millions of their countrymen, protesters who have been urging them to use their voices, and their platforms, to do more to support the fight for more rights, more freedoms, more accountability. On the other was Iran’s government, intolerant of dissent and willing to crush it forcibly.
The Iranian players had tested their limits in Qatar, declining to sing their national anthem before their opening game, only to adjust, days later, and appear to grudgingly go through the motions before a match against Wales.
The U.S. Soccer Federation raised the stakes by posting on social media a group standings table with an altered version of the Iranian flag — horizontal green, white and red stripes, stripped of the country’s official emblem and lines of Islamic script removed. A spokesman for the federation said the change was a show of support for the Iranian women who have put themselves at risk to protest government restrictions, but the posts were then deleted.
Iran’s federation responded angrily, calling the move deeply insulting and calling on FIFA, soccer’s world governing body, to expel the United States from the World Cup.
The two nations had met just once before in a World Cup, in 1998, when Iran prevailed, 2-1, in another politically charged match for its first World Cup victory. That emotional game in the group stage had people dancing in the streets of Tehran.
For the regime in Tehran, another victory over the United States on Tuesday would have held immense value, a point of national prestige that it could have claimed as its own.
For the protesters, Iran’s continued presence at the world’s biggest sporting event would have meant more days in the spotlight, more focus on their country and their cause, more chances to jeer the government in subtle — and vocal — ways inside stadiums. Some hoped that celebrations of an Iranian win would morph into another round of demonstrations.
Instead, at Shahrak Ekbatan, a vast apartment complex in central Tehran that has been a hotbed of nightly protests and violent clashes, people cheered and celebrated Iran’s defeat, according to a resident and videos posted on social media.
In the Tehran neighborhood of Eram, a video posted on Twitter showed people chanting “America, America,” and a man narrating a video in another neighborhood said that although it was 1 a.m., the soccer-loving people of Iran were so fed up with the Islamic Republic that they were cheering for its opponent.
Videos also showed people dancing in the streets in Marivan and Sanandaj, cities with large ethnic populations of Kurds in the home province of Mahsa Amini, the 22-year-old whose death in the custody of the morality police sparked the protests calling for an end to clerical rule.
At the tournament, the pressure may have proved too much for the Iranian squad. Unlike the United States, Iran has never advanced out of the first round at a World Cup. Its team, long a symbol of unity in a persistently divided nation, had needed only a tie to advance. Its tournament had been a roller-coaster: a thumping at the hands of England, a last-minute win over Wales, and a showdown against the young American team.
The Iranian players held their own against the Americans’ repeated thrusts and, after Pulisic’s goal separated the teams, pushed repeatedly for the tying goal they knew would carry them through.
The math on Tuesday was not a secret: England led the group going into its final two games. When England took a lead over Wales in the other game across the city, moving into position to win the group, both Iran and the United States narrowed their eyes and set their sights on second place, and the group’s other place in the knockout rounds.
By then the Americans were ahead. The goal had come off a sequence of incisive passes in the 38th minute: midfielder Weston McKennie picking out a sprinting Sergiño Dest racing up the right wing, and Dest delivering a perfect skidding cross to Pulisic, who had read what was coming and come charging at the goal. He arrived just in time to redirect the ball past the goalkeeper, Alireza Beiranvand, but their forceful collision left Pulisic lying in the net for several minutes.
Initially requiring help just to stand, and move, Pulisic eventually returned to the field for the final few minutes of the first half. But he didn’t return for the second half — team officials said he was headed to the hospital for scans on his injured midsection — and was replaced by one of the team’s young talents, Brenden Aaronson.
Pulisic’s status for the next round, a date with the Netherlands on Saturday, was unclear as the game ended. The team said on Twitter afterward that he had a pelvic bruise. But that will be a question for the future, and thanks to its victory, the U.S. team now has one at this tournament.
It will be joined in the knockout stage by England, a 3-0 winner over Wales on Tuesday in a different sort of political matchup.
Expectations for the Americans were low when they arrived here, their moment thought to be in 2026.
Pulisic made sure they would not have to wait.
Reporting was contributed by Farnaz Fassihi and Sarah Maslin Nir from New York and Michael D. Shear from Washington.