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U.S.-Iran World Cup prediction: Expect a heated atmosphere on and off the field

If you want athletes to stick to sports, this is not the game for you. Plus, there's a lot on the line as both teams look to advance to the knockout rounds.

U.S. manager Gregg Berhalter and captain Tyler Adams listen to questions at a news conference Monday.
U.S. manager Gregg Berhalter and captain Tyler Adams listen to questions at a news conference Monday.Read moreAshley Landis / AP

In my prediction for the U.S.-Wales game, I wrote that because I hadn’t seen this U.S. team beat enough opponents from outside Concacaf, I wasn’t convinced it could do so at the World Cup.

Though the Americans still haven’t earned a win in Qatar, I’ve seen enough now to believe they can beat Iran on Tuesday (2 p.m., Fox29, Telemundo, Peacock).

I’ve watched U.S. men’s teams at World Cups for over two decades, and I’ve never seen one control a World Cup game the way this squad did against England. Not under Jürgen Klinsmann, not under Bob Bradley, and not under Bruce Arena — including the famed 3-2 upset of Portugal in 2002 that’s still the only American win over a European team at a men’s World Cup since 1950.

If Gregg Berhalter’s team plays with the same level of intensity and quality it did on Friday, the U.S. should win this game and advance to the round of 16. The U.S. players know that only a win will do, nothing else, and that should help sharpen their focus.

» READ MORE: How to bet on U.S. vs. Iran

That focus will be needed even more than usual with all the off-the-field controversies surrounding this game. If you want athletes to stick to sports, this is not the game for you. But even some of that crowd knows that when the U.S. plays Iran in any sports context, just like Russia and China and some other countries in the world, sticking to sports is impossible.

Beyond the perennial political rivalry between the U.S. and Iran, there’s the current controversy over the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman arrested by Iran’s “morality police” for wearing her hijab too loosely. She died while in police custody, leading to huge protests in Iran — and thousands of arrests and hundreds more deaths, according to human rights watchdogs. The U.S. has sanctioned Iran for the crackdowns several times.

At both of Iran’s World Cup games so far, the stands have seen huge swaths of Iranian fans protesting their government. Many Iranian players have sided with the protesters, including by refusing to sing the national anthem in their group stage opener. Iran’s federation forced them to do it in the second game, and the crowd responded by booing.

There have been widespread accusations that Iranian government officials are monitoring citizens in the stands. Other Iran fans have been harassed, too. One of the latter happens to be a friend of this reporter: Camellia Senemar, a former public relations staffer at Fox Sports who worked on the network’s soccer coverage. After security staff tried to ban her group from entering the Iran-Wales game, she was interviewed on CNN.

» READ MORE: World Cup 2022: TV schedule, live streaming, kickoff times on Fox and Telemundo

The U.S. Soccer Federation made its stance known on Sunday with some social media posts that featured an altered version of Iran’s flag, missing some symbols of the Islamic Republic. Protesters in Iran have used that version of the flag, and a U.S. Soccer statement said its move was to “show support for the women in Iran fighting for basic human rights.”

This drew praise from protesters, but a backlash from Iran’s soccer federation and government — including a demand by a state media outlet that FIFA kick the U.S. out of the World Cup and ban the team for 10 games.

(The outlet’s Twitter profile includes a depiction of a burning U.S. flag.)

» READ MORE: U.S. Soccer briefly scrubs emblem from Iran flag in social media post from World Cup

There also appeared to be issues within the U.S. camp. Not only did Berhalter and his players not know about the posts in advance — not surprisingly, there were lots of questions at a U.S. team news conference on Monday — but the U.S. State Department didn’t know either.

A few hours after the posts went up, they were taken down. U.S. Soccer’s head of public relations didn’t explain why to reporters in Qatar, saying: “I’m not going to get into specifics. We made the decision.”

At Monday’s news conference, Berhalter and U.S. captain Tyler Adams were peppered with questions from Iranian media that had nothing to do with soccer. Iran manager Carlos Queiroz, to his credit, tried to calm the waters when he met the press right before them.

But the waters didn’t stay calm for long. On Monday evening, CNN reported that the families of Iran’s team “have been threatened with imprisonment and torture if the players fail to ‘behave’” ahead of Tuesday’s kickoff.

It’s impossible to know how all of this will affect the game itself, but it’s hard to believe it will have no effect. And by the way, while the U.S. must win to advance, Iran only needs a tie to reach the knockout rounds for the first time. Team Melli might not be the most star-studded team at this World Cup, but it has serious attacking talent in Bayer Leverkusen’s Sardar Azmoun and FC Porto’s Mehdi Taremi.

The 1998 U.S.-Iran men’s World Cup game was described at the time as the most politically charged game in World Cup history. Iran won it, 2-1, in what was the second group stage game of that tournament.

This game will surely top that one for controversy. Now to see if it will be a U.S. win.

Prediction: United States 1, Iran 0.

» READ MORE: Alejandro Bedoya encourages World Cup players to speak up on issues beyond the field