Jhe taste of this World Cup is very different: I want to call it “The beautiful distraction”. It’s Argentina who only focus on this for Lionel Messi and then forget how to play football without him. It’s Germany trying to make a statement before kick-off and then losing to Japan. That’s what happened to Iran in their opening game, where they were dealing so politically that England smelled blood and destroyed them. It is Qatar that hosts the tournament although they are not good enough to play there. (This game won’t just punish a coward, it will also punish the untalented.) Make sure you’re good enough to be there next time.
The United States cannot engage in distraction. Then they have to play against Iran, and the decades-old political backdrop is huge. For our players, I think this is the week to say ‘No Comments’. That doesn’t mean you don’t care. But if they pointed a microphone at me as a player and asked me how I feel about what’s going on in Iran, I’d say, “Ask me on Wednesday. Next question.”
When you have to be ultra-focused on a goal, you better stay ultra-focused on that goal – and our goal is to win at all costs. It’s too important for us not to, and I hesitate to use the word ‘ruthless’, but we have to be. Iran will fight. Their coach knows us: Carlos Queiroz was hired by the United States Soccer Federation to write the Project 2010 report. It’s no secret that he would love the work of the USMNT.
My American team faced Iran in the 1998 World Cup. There was a lot of talk about it, there were some political gestures, but it didn’t really affect us. We treated it as an opportunity to show how this sport can bring people together. Some of my teammates were against acting like we were okay with everything, and found it a distraction. I don’t think it was something we fully understood – nor did we want to. We wanted to keep it separate. Of course, we understood the hostage crisis and the feelings the two countries had for each other. But that was not our goal.
I wasn’t on the pitch that day, so I didn’t even swap shirts. Coach never put me on.
As we were down 2-1, Steve Sampson’s latest change was to replace a midfielder with a defender. Brad Friedel looked at me from across the bench and said, “If you got on a plane right now, we’d all understand.” Even my teammates knew I should have been in the game.
Tuesday against Iran, we win or we go. The problem is that American sports are built around “Let’s go next time”; come in last so you can get a draft pick; around rewarding failure. We don’t have promotion and relegation. We don’t have owner groups that have felt the sting of an inadequate team, and therefore a sting for their business. Because when your team loses, it means you hired the wrong people to hire the wrong people to hire the wrong people. You lost. But in American sports, there is no sting to come last. Very often when the United States plays football, we don’t know how to win – we’re not used to having to win – so we try not to lose. And we end up getting exactly what we deserve: a tie. Even though many of our players compete in promotion and relegation leagues, that culture still permeates American football.
And by the way, as American property spreads its wings in the world of football and buys clubs, my only wish is that they don’t suck up the essence of the competition just because we don’t know how to win.
Here’s a bigger picture of what the Iranian game represents: it’s about who has more pride, us or them? The country of Iran is in turmoil, based in part on notions of manhood. We have all seen the Iranian Congress chanting “Death to America”. Of course, belief systems that turn into hate have no place on the football pitch on Tuesday. However, let’s be clear: a victory for either side will represent dominance. And the biggest punch in the face we could give the Iranian regime right now — since, in their eyes, it’s a battle of who is more macho — would be to beat it.
Iran has nothing to lose. And the USA? We’ve taken a league from nothing to one with a franchise value of $900 million, which is probably more than most Bundesliga teams. Billions of dollars have been spent on us becoming a better footballing nation – and it all depends on our ability to put together a team that will only play defense, led by a coach we have hired to help us.
To win this one, we need to fully understand the realities of risk-reward football. We have to be brave enough to throw more numbers forward and be in the back. That’s how we go about it. It will require a good defense. Our offensive weapons are quite good; we just need another option. It’s the one thing Carlos Queiroz can’t stop.
This must-win situation is also a must-fault situation. If the press fails, fault immediately. Take the yellow. We are going to have problems with the guys, and our coach has to understand that. Our boys can’t afford to think about the reality of missing the next game. There is no tomorrow, and every game could be the game that wins it for us or ruins our day. We have to win – we are not Canada.
In my opinion, it will take all 16 players to win. We will have to be smart in our replacements. And we have to find Iran’s weakness, its injured gazelle. As soon as we do, we have to have lunch. After all, we just played the Three Lions. Now it’s our turn to be lions.
Eric Wynalda has scored 34 goals in 106 appearances for the UNITED STATES and played in three World Cups. He is now a broadcaster.