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A generation after ‘the mother of all games,’ the U.S. and Iran meet again

Iranian and United States fans wave flags before a 1998 World Cup meeting. (Patrick Kovarik/AFP/Getty Images)

Almost a quarter-century ago, the United States and Iran met at the 1998 World Cup in France in a hyped-up match brimming with political and competitive importance. The nations back then derisively referred to each other as “The Great Satan” and an “outlaw state.” Media reports referred to it as “the mother of all games.” And many players and coaches attempted to minimize the match’s political significance — which, after their crushing loss, some of the Americans later said was a mistake.

The June 21, 1998, meeting took place two decades after young militants in Iran took Americans hostage at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, holding them for 444 days, which resulted in the severing of diplomatic relations between the nations. A month before the match, the State Department labeled Iran the world’s “most active” sponsor of terrorism.

Despite the diplomatic bad blood, things appeared to be cordial among the players and the fans when they met at Stade de Gerland in Lyon. The teams posed for a joint photograph before the game, players exchanged jerseys, and the Iranian players gave their American counterparts white roses in a gesture of peace. The Americans presented their opponents with pennants.

“After all the fear that this game would create more animosity between two longtime political adversaries, the Americans and the Iranians had a love fest,” Anne Swardson wrote in The Washington Post.

There were fistfights in the stands, but they were between Iranian fans, with American fans merely bystanders. Iranian dissidents held up posters and wore T-shirts of a woman they considered their leader, and some hoisted a “Death to Khatemi” banner in opposition to then-president Mohammed Khatemi. French police ejected some fans and confiscated political banners and posters. Before the game, security screened fans’ clothing and posters for political content.

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A historical echo is playing out in this year’s World Cup in Qatar, with fans denied entry or removed from games for flags or shirts seen as protests of Iran’s government. There also has been tension in the stands between Iranian government supporters and opponents, with some opponents waving the pre-revolutionary flag.

On the field, Iran came into the 1998 match playing with house money. The Iranians were the last of the 32 teams to qualify and were competing in their first World Cup since 1978. When the Iranians earned their World Cup berth with a win over Australia the previous year, millions celebrated in the streets.

“Young women were seen brazenly pulling off their black scarves, dancing with men and in some cases drinking alcohol in defiance of Islamic law,” Sports Illustrated reported. “This street party went on for hours — and the authorities did not try to stop any of it. To do so would have been unpatriotic.”

Iranian Americans in Los Angeles had mixed feelings Nov. 27, as the United States and Iran prepare to face off at the World Cup. (Video: Reuters)

As the World Cup approached, Iran might have inadvertently lowered tensions by naming a California resident, Jalal Talebi, its coach just before the tournament. Talebi, who got the job May 21, had been born in Tehran but left his native country in 1980 following the Islamic revolution, in search of opportunities to coach soccer when the sport was abandoned in Iran. By the time of the World Cup matchup with the United States, he had been living in the Bay Area for 17 years. (Iran’s current coach, Carlos Queiroz of Portugal, also has U.S. connections — he coached the New York/New Jersey MetroStars of MLS in 1996.)

“Most observers say the Iranian team has little chance of prevailing, partly because it has few world-class players but also because it is still roiling with controversy,” Sports Illustrated wrote in June 1998, referring to the coaching carousel.

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

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

Some of his players expressed a similar sentiment. But others said they were motivated by the political rivalry between the nations.

“We will not lose the game,” vowed Iranian forward Khodadad Azizi, according to the Times. Blaming the United States for the Iran-Iraq war, he said: “Many families of martyrs are expecting us to win. We will win for their sake.”

The American players seemed to lack the same incentive.

“I hope they’re playing for the history and all that sort of stuff because that just adds to the pressure on them,” Alexi Lalas, a defender on that U.S. team, said before the match. “We’re mature enough and experienced enough to know this has nothing to do with government or politics.”

American Coach Steve Sampson, who quit soon after the loss, told the Guardian in 2018 that FIFA and the U.S. Soccer Federation instructed him not to politicize the game, even as Iran did so.

“I think the government of Iran made it a political match,” he said. “If I was to do it all over again, I would’ve brought up the history between the two countries with the players and used it as a motivational tool to get a result. But I chose not to at the time.”

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In an interview with the Associated Press this week, Lalas said the Americans underestimated how significant the match was to the Iranians beyond soccer. He suggested that the current American team learn from that experience.

“Understanding the importance of this game, not just from a soccer perspective but from a cultural perspective, I think is crucial for the United States,” he said. “I don’t think we knew how important it was to them beyond the actual World Cup. And I think actually we purposely tried to downplay a lot of the other stuff.”

Current U.S. men’s national team coach Gregg Berhalter, who played professionally in the Netherlands, was a Dutch TV analyst for that 1998 showdown.

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

In another echo of that 1998 match, this year’s meeting features a late-developing off-the-field controversy: the U.S. Soccer Federation removing from its social media graphics a symbol in the middle of the Iranian flag associated with the country’s clerical leaders. The USSF said it did so to express solidarity with Iranian women fighting for human rights, but it has since deleted the posts. Iran’s soccer federation Sunday called for the U.S. squad to be expelled from the World Cup.

Back in 1998, Iran complained about an American movie that was airing on French television, “Not Without My Daughter,” which starred Sally Field and was based on the true story of an American woman who left Iran with her daughter in defiance of her Iranian husband. Talebi said the movie was “insulting” and “untrue.” “If they’re insulted by the movie being shown, they’ve got a lot bigger problems,” Lalas said.

His words were not prophetic. Iran stunned the Americans, 2-1, for its first World Cup victory, ending the U.S. hopes after two games, following an earlier loss to Germany. Even though the Iranians were eliminated a few days later, their victory over the U.S. squad was cause for celebration. Thousands of fans greeted them at the airport in Tehran, waving Iranian flags and blowing trumpets.

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

World Cup in Qatar

World champions: Argentina has won the World Cup, defeating France in penalty kicks in a thrilling final in Lusail, Qatar, for its first world championship since 1986. Argentina was led by global soccer star Lionel Messi in what is expected to be his final World Cup appearance. France was bidding to become the first repeat champion since Brazil won consecutive trophies in 1958 and 1962.

Today’s WorldView: In the minds of many critics, especially in the West, Qatar’s World Cup will always be a tournament shrouded in controversy. But Qatar’s foreign minister, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, wants people to take another view.

Perspective: “America is not a men’s soccer laughingstock right now. It’s onto something, and it’s more attuned to what’s working for the rest of the world rather than stubbornly forcing an American sports culture — without the benefit of best-of-the-best talent — into international competition.” Read Jerry Brewer on the U.S. men’s national team’s future.