When the USMNT met Iran at the 1998 World Cup

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Almost a quarter century ago, the United States and Iran met at the 1998 World Cup in France in a game filled with political significance and rivalry. The nations back then mockingly referred to each other as “the Great Satan” and “the land of thieves.” Media reports called it “the mother of all sports.” And many players and coaches tried to downplay the importance of the game – which, after the devastating loss, some Americans later called a mistake.

The meeting of June 21, 1998, was held twenty years after young Iranian militants captured the Americans in the US Embassy in Tehran, holding them for 444 days, which ended by severing diplomatic relations between nations. A month before the game, the State Department said Iran is the “active” sponsor of terrorism in the world.

Despite the political bad blood, things looked good among the players and fans when they met at the Stade de Gerland in Lyon. The teams posed for a group photo before the game, players exchanged jerseys, and Iranian players gave their American counterparts white roses as a sign of peace. The Americans gave their opponents pennants.

“After all the fears that the game would fuel more animosity between the two long-time political enemies, Americans and Iranians had a love fest,” wrote Anne Swardson in The Washington Post.

There were fistfights in the stands, but they were between the Iranian fans, and the American fans as spectators. Iranian protesters held up placards and wore t-shirts of the woman they considered their leader, and some held up a “Death to Khatemi” sign against the then president. , Mohammed Khatemi. French police chased away some fans and confiscated political banners and posters. Before the game, security checked fans’ clothes and posters for political content.

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An echo of history continues at this year’s World Cup in Qatar, with fans denied entry or removed from games for flags or shirts seen as a protest against the Iranian government. There were also tensions between supporters of the Iranian government and the opposition, with some protesters waving a pre-revolutionary flag.

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On the field, Iran entered the 1998 tournament playing on house money. The Iranians were the last of the 32 teams to qualify and were competing in the World Cup for the first time since 1978. When the Iranians secured their place in the World Cup by winning Australia last year, millions celebrated in the streets.

“Young women were seen boldly removing their black headscarves, dancing with men and sometimes drinking alcohol in violation of Islamic law,” Sports Illustrated reported. “This street party lasted for hours – and the authorities did not try to stop any of it. To do so would have been unpatriotic.”

As the World Cup approaches, Iran may be deliberately de-escalating tensions by naming Californian Jalal Talebi as its coach ahead of the tournament. Talebi, who got the job on May 21, was born in Tehran but left his country in 1980 after the Islamic revolution, to seek opportunities to coach football when the sport was abandoned in Iran. By the time of the World Cup match against the United States, he had lived in the Bay Area for 17 years. (Iran’s current coach, Portugal’s Carlos Queiroz, also has US connections – he signed with the New York/New Jersey MetroStars of MLS in 1996.)

“Many observers say the Iranian team has little chance of success, in part because it has few world-class players but also because it continues to be controversial,” Sports Illustrated wrote in June 1998, about a coaching group.

Talebi, like many participants, downplayed the politics of the game.

“I am not a political person; He is a sportsman,” he said, according to the New York Times. “We came here to show everyone that there are no problems between the people of the two countries.”

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Some of his players expressed similar feelings. But others said they were motivated by political competition between nations.

“We will not lose the game,” vowed Iranian player Khodadad Azizi, according to the Times. Blaming the United States for the war in Iran and Iraq, he said: “Many families of martyrs expect us to win.” We will win for them. ”

American players seemed to lack the same motivation.

“I hope they’re playing for history and all that because that puts more pressure on them,” said Team USA defender Alexi Lalas before the game. “We are old enough and experienced enough to know that this has nothing to do with the government or politics.”

US coach Steve Sampson, who quit shortly after the loss, told the Guardian in 2018 that FIFA and the US Soccer Federation had ordered him not to play in the match, as Iran had done.

“I think the Iranian government has made a political game,” he said. “If I had to do it again, I would have brought up the history between the two countries and the players and used it as a motivational tool to get the result. But I chose not to do that at the time.”

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In an interview with the Associated Press this week, Lalas said Americans underestimate how much more sports are important to Iranians than football. He suggested that the current American team should learn from that experience.

“Understanding the importance of this game, not only from a soccer perspective but from a cultural perspective, I think it’s important for the United States,” he said. “I don’t think we knew how much more important it was to them than the actual World Cup. And I think we’ve deliberately tried to downplay a lot of other things. ”

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Current US men’s national team coach Gregg Berhalter, who played in the Netherlands, was the Dutch TV analyst for that 1998 game.

“That game always sticks in my mind and burns in my mind,” he said at a press conference on Monday. “What I saw at the opening whistle was a team that really wanted to win the game and a team that really didn’t want to win the game. Iran wanted to win the game with everything. “

In a follow-up to that 1998 game, this year’s meeting has a lingering controversy: The US Athletics Federation is removing from its web graphics the symbol in the center of the Iranian flag associated with the country’s clergy leaders. The USSF said it did so in solidarity with Iranian women who are fighting for human rights, but has since cleared the loopholes. Iran’s soccer federation on Sunday called for the American team to be kicked out of the World Cup.

Back in 1998, Iran complained about an American film that aired on French television, “Not Without My Daughter,” which starred Sally Field and was based on the true story of an American woman who he left Iran with his daughter to oppose his Iranian. man. Talebi said the film was “false” and “not true.” Lalas said: “If they are cursed by the movie that is being shown, they have a lot of problems.

His words were not prophecies. Iran stunned the Americans, 2-1, for its first World Cup victory, ending America’s hopes after two games, after losing to Germany earlier. Although the Iranians were eliminated a few days later, their victory over the US team was cause for celebration. Thousands of fans greeted them at Tehran airport, waving Iranian flags and blowing trumpets.

Steven Goff in Rayyan, Qatar, contributed to this report.

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