ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
AP photo by Julio Cortez / Members of the U.S. men's national soccer team celebrate after Christian Pulisic scored on a penalty kick during a World Cup qualifying match against Panama on Sunday in Orlando, Fla.

DOHA, Qatar — A World Cup buildup laced in controversy and geopolitical undertones has conjured up the most politically charged of matchups on the field in Qatar.

Just like at the international showpiece for men's soccer in 1998, the United States will play Iran with diplomatic relations yet to be restored between the nations since being severed in the 1970s.

The Mother of All Games, Part II.

"I'm not political," Iran's Croatian coach, Dragan Skocic, said. "I focus on football. I think this is the best way in sport, and also we should give people the chance to make the situation better."

The hope for the November meeting will be for a repeat of the tranquility around the 1998 encounter in France, where the Iranians brought white roses for their American opponents before winning 2-1.

"It's 24 years later from 1998 and further removed from the '70s, and both nations have evolved tremendously since then," U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter said. "For us, it's a soccer game."

But if Group B needed any more intrigue, it was provided in FIFA's draw Friday in Doha by the headline participant being Euro 2020 runner-up England, a nation whose government has also endured tense relations with Iran.

And the ramifications of Russia's invasion of Ukraine were evident in the final team drawn in the group. Ukraine's ability to qualify for Qatar has been delayed by the war halting soccer in the country, but if it beats Scotland and then Wales in the playoffs in June, it will make the World Cup for the first time since 2006.

Berhalter called Ukraine a team "everyone's pulling for in a way because of everything they are going through."

Whether it's Scotland, Ukraine or Wales, the group's final qualifying nation will take on the Americans — currently 15th in the FIFA rankings — on Nov. 21. The Americans will play No. 5 England four days later and close the group stage against No. 21 Iran on Nov. 29.

The middle match of that run will happen the day after Thanksgiving in the United States. The Americans finished third in North and Central America and the Caribbean, giving them the region's final guaranteed qualifying spot for Qatar and sending them back to the World Cup four years after missing it.

"It's the biggest stage in soccer that you can have, to play them in the World Cup and to be playing against players that people know," U.S. midfielder Weston McKennie said. "You can take a step forward in your player growth, in making yourself more known, and also just making the team more respected, more looked at, more believed in.

"That's the goal that Gregg set out to accomplish when he took over. And that's something that's always reiterated whenever we go into camp, is change the way the world views American soccer, and I think there's no better place and no better time to be able to do that."

U.S. star Christian Pulisic, who plays professionally for Chelsea FC in the English Premier League, received a call right after the draw from club teammate Mason Mount, a regular for England's national team.

"It just makes me smile. I'm just excited for it," Pulisic said. "I think we all are, and, yeah, just counting down the days really."

The focus on Group B overshadowed other notable draws.

Qatar qualified as the host of the first World Cup in the Middle East, and will make its tournament debut on the opening night on Nov. 21 against Ecuador. They will later face the teams who open the tournament earlier in the day: African champion Senegal and the Netherlands, whose coach, Louis van Gaal, said last week it was a "ridiculous" decision to award the World Cup to this tiny nation.

That FIFA vote in 2010 sparked years of corruption investigations into not only Qatar's bid but widespread bribery of world football officials. At kickoff in November, Qatar will hope the focus is on the quality of the games.

The World Cup champion will be crowned in December for the first time, on what will be Qatar National Day on the 18th of that month. The quadrennial tournament was moved from its usual July slot to avoid fierce summer heat.

The implausibility of Qatar staging such a mammoth event in eight stadiums within the congested confines of Doha was clear in the desert imagery that flashed on the screens around the draw venue Friday. Images of skyscrapers sprouting from the sand served as a reminder of the vast projects required to develop this gas-rich nation in recent decades.

"The world can see Qatar as promised," the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, told the audience.

The suffering of low-paid migrant workers went unmentioned, but there was an oblique reference before the draw by Gianni Infantino, the president of FIFA, to the war in Ukraine launched in February by 2018 World Cup host Russia.

"Our world is divided, our world is aggressive, and we need occasions to bring people together," Infantino said. "To all the leaders and all the people of the world, stop the conflicts and the wars. Please engage in dialogue. Please engage in peace. We want this to be a World Cup of unity and the World Cup of peace."

some text
AP photo by Moises Castillo / Christian Pulisic, right, takes a shot for the United States as Costa Rica's Carlos Martinez tries to block during a World Cup qualifying match Wednesday in San Jose, Costa Rica.

2022 WORLD CUP

Nov. 21-Dec. 18 in Qatar

Group A: Ecuador, Netherlands, Qatar and Senegal

Group B: England, Iran, United States and Scotland, Ukraine or Wales

Group C: Argentina, Mexico, Poland and Saudi Arabia

Group D: Denmark, France, Tunisia and Australia, Peru or United Arab Emirates

Group E: Germany, Japan, Spain and Costa Rica or New Zealand

Group F: Belgium, Canada, Croatia and Morocco

Group G: Brazil, Cameroon, Serbia and Switzerland

Group H: Ghana, Portugal, South Korea and Uruguay

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT