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At the World Cup, there's a week left in the opening group stage

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

One thing you can say about the World Cup - it's never short on drama. That's certainly the case with the current one in Qatar, both on and off the field. With a week left in the opening group stage, nearly every national team has a chance to advance to the knockout round. Meanwhile, a war of words and flags has erupted between the U.S. and Iran. NPR's sports correspondent Tom Goldman is in Doha, Qatar. Tom, all right, let's start with the flags. The U.S. Soccer Federation has been doctoring the Iranian flag as a show of support for protesters in Iran. What more can you tell us? This one's a strange one.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: It is. As part of the promotion for tomorrow's huge match between Iran and the U.S., U.S. Soccer Federation posted depictions of the Iranian flag just with the Iranian colors green, white and red, and without the emblem of the Islamic Republic or lines of script talking about the greatness of God. Now, U.S. Soccer said this was an act to, quote, "show support for women in Iran fighting for basic human rights." That's a reference to the violent government crackdown in Iran against those protesting the death in September of a young Iranian woman in police custody. The U.S. Federation, which said it did this without the knowledge of the team, has since deleted the images, restored the flag with Islamic emblem. But that certainly hasn't quelled Iranian anger.

MARTÍNEZ: And Iran I don't think has reacted very well.

GOLDMAN: They have not. What's being called a semi-official state news agency in Iran says the Iranian Soccer Federation is calling for the U.S. to be kicked out of the World Cup for distorting the flag's image and breaching FIFA rules - FIFA being soccer's international governing body. The Iranian news agency also had a photo of the American flag in flames.

MARTÍNEZ: And all of this comes at a time when the big match you mentioned tomorrow between the U.S. and Iran - already, Tom, fraught with meaning.

GOLDMAN: It sure is. As far as the match goes, the outcome will determine the fate of both teams at this World Cup. The U.S. has to win to move on. Iran can win or tie to advance to the coveted knockout round, the final 16 teams, for the first time ever. So huge implications. Plus both matches involving Iran up to now have been flashpoints for the troubles going on in that country, and the disputes have involved - what do you know - flags. Those supporting the protest movement in Iran have been waving or trying to wave flags depicting pre-revolution Iran. Supporters of the current Iranian government have been waving the Islamic Republic flag and intimidating supporters. Qatari security has been helping them, taking away the protesters flags and T-shirts. All of this sets up a potentially volatile situation tomorrow, both on and off the field.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. So definitely no fun with flags in Qatar. All right. Now to soccer, because there was some great soccer this past weekend. What did you see?

GOLDMAN: Well, Saturday I saw what has to be to this point, the top moment of the World Cup - at least top three, we'll say. The great Argentine Lionel Messi kept alive his team's World Cup hopes with that scorching second-half goal against Mexico. One of those transcendent moments, A, in sports when the star athlete delivers at the most crucial time. Had Argentina lost that game, Messi's dream of winning a first World Cup in his last World Cup would have ended. He saved the day. Argentina, though, still has to beat Poland to advance. Then yesterday, Morocco had this amazing two nil upset win over second-ranked team in the world Belgium. Morocco just played better and earned the win and continued the surprising rise of African and Arab countries here. I'm also including Iran and Saudi Arabia's success in that. Those countries have largely lagged behind the European and South American soccer powers.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR's Tom Goldman at the World Cup. Tom, thanks a lot.

GOLDMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.