In modern day football where billions of pounds are spent into an industry that stretches all over the world, the phrase “more than just a game” seems like an empty phrase that’s merely thrown around. However, if there is one game, one event or one encounter that has genuinely lived up to phrase, it would be the clash between Iran and USA in the 1998 World Cup – a match that went far beyond the pitch and the world of football.
When the draw of the group stages for the 1998 World Cup took place and Iran and America drew one another as opponents,, the world rubbed its hands together in excitement for what they thought would be one of the most tense football matches to ever occur.
It’s a well-known fact that these two countries have had a very hostile relationship for decades. A clash of ideologies between the two governments and a series of events slowly has moved these nations apart politically. Many historians and political analysts believe political relations began to take a downturn when the CIA led a coup d’Etat in 1953, overthrowing the then popular Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh – a man who remains one of the most notable figures in recent Iranian history. In 1979, relations spiralled even further downwards when the anti-western Ayatollah Khomeini led the nation through a revolution that toppled the Shah and established the Islamic Republic.
But as the politics heightened tensions, leaving the two countries in somewhat of a standoff, their teams displayed nothing but a desire to play a good game. With the world placing so much emphasis on the differences between the two countries and their pasts, the media focused on turning the match the match into a non-violent battle between the two countries.. But Jalal Talebi, Iran’s manager in the World Cup, was amongst many within the Team Melli camp to remind the rest of world that this was a football game and there would be no room for politics on the field. “I am not a political man, I am a sportsman. We came here to show to everyone there is no problem between the people of the two countries,” he told reporters before the game.
On the pitch, away from the politics that seemed to engulf the rest of the world, Team Melli were beginning to show signs of being a “powerhouse” – a reputation they had held on strongly to before. The 1970’s was a period of domination in Asia for the Iranians as they were crowned Asian champions in 3 consecutive tournaments and managed to qualify for their first ever World Cup in 1978. Following the 1979 Islamic revolution however, football found itself taking a backseat in society as the newly formed government undermined its popularity and importance amongst the Iranian population. Football’s cause was not helped when a Saddam ruled Iraq attacked Iran, starting a war that would last around 8 years. This pushed football and sport further back into obscurity as the population had other priorities during difficult times. Following the ending of the war, football began to regain its place in the society as the domestic leagues were back on their feet. After a few years of disappointments, a crop of talented players began to emerge as Iran overcame Australia in a dramatic play-off in 1997 to qualify for their second World Cup appearance. Players such as Ali Daei, Mehdi Mahdavikia, Khodadad Azizi and Ahmadreza Abedzadeh were the newly found heroes of the Iranian faithfuls.
As Lyon and Stade Gerland was preparing itself for the big game, thousands of Iranian and American supporters headed into the stadium despite fears of possible threats inside the stadium. There had been reports that Mujaheddin Khalgh (MEK), an exiled Iranian political party who opposed the Iranian regime, were organising mass protests inside the stadium. This provided the possibility of a stern test for FIFA and French security officials but Mehrdad Masoudi, an Iranian born FIFA media officer for the game, told the media, “We issued the TV cameramen with photos so they knew which people and which banners to avoid. The match was being beamed around the world and the last thing we wanted was for this group to sabotage the occasion and use it for their own political purpose.”
With kickoff almost imminent, 39,000 spectators in attendance were waiting for the chance to witness one of the most anticipated matches of the tournament. As both teams came out, Iranian players each had a white rose to hand their American counterparts in symbol of peace as the two captains exchanged gifts before the whistle. Then came one of the most symbolic images of World Cup history – Iranian and American players standing next to each other smiling and holding conversations before the game as dozens of reporters flashed their cameras to take photographs.
Both teams went into the game having lost their opening match. The United States had a tough opening game against a strong Germany side in which they lost 2-0 while Iran endured a 1-0 defeat against Yugoslavia. Both teams needed a win as defeat for either side would’ve meant an end to their World Cup aspirations.
Iran took the lead through a towering header from the edge of the box by Hamid Estili, whose emotional goal celebration is still remembered by many. He recalls the moment as “I was thrilled to score the goal as you could see by my facial expression, not only because as a defensive midfielder I don’t score enough goals, but because I scored a goal which will remain in the memories of my people for a long time.”
The United States tried to get back into the game but they faced an in-form Abedzadeh in goal, nicknamed by Iranian fans as the “eagle of Asia”. In the latter stages of the game, Mehdi Mahdavikia put the game to bed by scoring a great solo goal. McBride scored a late consolation for the Americans but it was too late as Iran marked a historic win in Lyon.
The end of the game saw not only Iranian players celebrating on the pitch but also thousands of people flooded the streets of Tehran to celebrate a memorable and historical win. The game was a diplomatic victory for both governments but most importantly, a thoroughly enjoyable match in which Team Melli came out as the deserved winners.
Everything went so well that at the end of the game there were talks of the Iranian national team being invited for a rematch in the United States. Jeff Agoos, one of the American players, said after the game that “We did more in 90 minutes than the politicians did in 20 years!” FIFA and French authorities were pleased as well, having held a peaceful match that had had so much riding on it.
After Iran’s World Cup campaign ended with a 2-0 defeat to the Germans, the players returned home to a hero’s welcome. All of the players met the country’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, and he praised them for their efforts, telling the world “as I was sat down in the evening, I turned on the TV and saw his (Estili’s) goal and I didn’t feel sleepy no more! And then I watched the rest of the game”.
Since that night, Iran has qualified for two World Cups (2006 Germany, 2014 Brazil) but they are yet to record another win on the biggest stage of world football. June 2018 would mark the 20th anniversary of that historic victory, and with Carlos Queiroz’s Iran side peaking just at the right time, fans are hoping that this 20 year drought can come to an end and Russia 2018 would see Iran spring a few surprises.
The heroes of the 1998 match continue to be idols to the current generation and will probably be the idols of future generations as well. Many players currently playing for Iran would’ve looked up to the 1998 generation and their achievement, but all eyes will be on them to repeat the success of Lyon and maybe even take it further once 2018 World Cup is here.
Iran’s victory over USA only gave Iran a simple 3 points in the context of the tournament, but the true reflection of that win went beyond the world of football and the tournament. And when it brings an entire nation together, you do begin to realise that football really is the “beautiful game”.