As tensions thaw, has the US challenged Iran to a game of soccer?

After decades of frosty relations between the U.S. and Iran, there are signs of a thaw – including the historic telephone call last month between President Barack Obama and his new Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani.

But ties between Tehran and America – the country it once called “Great Satan” – may now extend beyond the diplomatic table, and onto the sports field.

Iranian media reported that the U.S. has asked Iran to play in a mini-tournament on American soil before the World Cup in Brazil next summer.

Both the U.S. Soccer Federation and the U.S. State Department refused to confirm or deny these reports. But State Dept spokesperson Marie Harf told a briefing Monday: “We’ve always said we were open to direct negotiations and talks with the Iranians, so where a better place than on the soccer field, right?”

U.S. Soccer spokesman Neil Buethe would only say that the organization had been “actively talking to numerous federations that have qualified for the World Cup about playing in the U.S. in late May and early June.”

He added: “All of these discussions are preliminary and we do not have any matches set at this point.”

David Noemi, a spokesperson for soccer’s world governing body FIFA, said the organization had not been informed about the plans. But he pointed out that FIFA regulations state the hosting country only has to give two months’ notice before registering any fixture.

According to a report by Iran’s Tasnim News Agency, Iran’s soccer head coach Carlos Queiroz said he had been contacted by the U.S. and has welcomed the chance to train before the World Cup in the summer.

Queiroz is a Portuguese coach who is well respected in the sport following spells in charge of Real Madrid, Portugal, and Manchester United as an assistant.

His assistant is Dan Gaspar, a Portuguese-American who has coached at several clubs in the U.S. including the University of Hartford and the now defunct Connecticut Wolves.

The Tasnim News Agency report says Iran would be joined by a team from Europe and a team from South America for the mini-tournament and would travel to the U.S. in late April.

However, because both the U.S. and Iran have qualified for the World Cup 2014, the U.S. Soccer Federation may be waiting to see if they are drawn to play each other in the tournament before arranging any other fixtures.

Although the phone call between Obama and Rouhani was the first between a U.S leader and his Iranian counterpart since 1979, the soccer match would be the third between the two countries.

Their first meeting came during the 1998 World Cup in France when Iran shocked the sport by knocking the U.S. out of the competition with a 2-1 defeat.

It was Iran’s first world cup since the 1979 revolution and there was a charged atmosphere on and off the pitch.

Iranian fans unfurled banners inside the Lyon stadium, rejecting Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. And before kickoff Khamenei had ordered the Iranian players not to walk towards the U.S. team to give pre-match handshakes, as was their obligation in being randomly designated “Team B” in the fixture.

But the teams diffused some of the tense atmosphere by exchanging white flowers, a symbol of peace in Iran.

Some 18 months later the two sides played each other again in Pasadena, Calif., which ended in a 1-1 draw.

By NBC News 


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