It is tough to profile Iran without thinking about the summer of ’98, when they played USA in a World Cup match against the backdrop of the Gulf War. The Iranians chose the occasion for a peace message, presenting white roses to their counterparts. This summer, however, they’ll come stronger and more hopeful than ever.
In January 1998, the then Iranian President Mohammad Khatami sat down for an interview with CNN and requested for a “dialogue of civilisations” with the United States of America. Khatami was a fairly progressive politician whose electoral campaign had run on promises of reform, tolerance and freedom of expression.
But relationship between Iran and the US had been prickly since the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Khatami was supposed to put an end to that as he was open to the idea of re-establishing diplomatic ties with the West and welcomed foreign investment in the country.
The Clinton administration had imposed heavy sanctions and a total embargo on dealings with Iran by American companies three years earlier. Citing quotes from Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy In America, Khatami drew parallels between the American and Iranian quest for freedom from oppression.
Khatami’s comments were largely well received. Regulations on travel between the two countries were shown a bit of leniency. Calls for stronger diplomatic ties were made, and most importantly, the American embargo on Iranian carpets and pistachios were lifted.
This hopeful new dawn of friendship, however, was resented by conservatives back in Tehran. “Death to America” had been a ritualistic slogan for Iranian clerics for decades therefore chastisement of Khatami’s proposal for friendship was hardly surprising. Relations stalled.
Amidst this stalemate, the two countries were scheduled to meet at arguably the grandest stage in the world – the 1998 FIFA World Cup in France. There would be no Clinton, Khatami or Ayatollah Khamenei but 22 footballers on a grass pitch who would give us a glimpse of the political and ideological tension between the two nations.
Just three weeks prior to the World Cup, the Iranian football federation appointed the former Esteghlal midfielder Jalal Talebi as their head coach.
Unbeknownst to Western football fanatics back then, Talebi had a deep connection with the United States. The ex-Iran international had kept a residence in California’s Bay Area for 17 years. Talebi coached while his wife Sira had her own skin care business while also running a restaurant near Stanford University.
Call it fate or fortuity but Talebi briefly coached the De Anza Community College team in the Bay Area. One of their former coaches was the then USMNT coach Steve Sampson. The pair had only met once previously but will meet again in France.
Played at the Abbasayyin Stadium in Damascus, Iran opened their qualifying campaign with an emphatic 17-0 win over Maldives with midfielder Karim Bagheri scoring seven of the goals. The Iranians won the return fixture in Tehran by 9-0.
A 7-0 hammering of Kyrgyzstan away from home was another big win. Bagheri, then playing at Persepolis, scored an incredible 12 goals in six games during the preliminary round.
He followed that up with six goals in eight matches in the final round, but Iran finished second behind Saudi Arabia in the final standings, resulting in a single leg play-off with another Asian heavyweight Japan who finished second in the other group.
The two countries met at the Larkin Stadium in Malaysia for the decider. With the match tied at 2-2 at the end of 90 minutes, Urawa Red Diamonds midfielder Masayuki Okano scored the golden goal in the 118th minute to send Japan through. But Iran had one final opportunity left to make it to the World Cup – a two legged play-off against Terry Venables coached Australia.
Reports of unrest sprung out even before a ball was kicked. The Australians were apparently a bit perturbed at the prospect of playing in Iran citing security concerns but the match went ahead anyway. Hushed calls for a neutral venue were justifiably ignored.
“We went out for the pre-match to have a look at the pitch and plenty of us we’re saying ‘that’s why we play, for this moment’,” recalled Alex Tobin, captain of that Australian side as 128,000 fans welcomed the two teams at the Azadi Stadium in Tehran. “It wasn’t a sort of daunting or scary crowd or anything like that. Obviously, they were as passionate as anybody but really it was just a matter of professional players loving those occasions.”
Young Leeds United attacker and future Liverpool star Harry Kewell, put the visitors in front in the 19th minute before Khodadad Azizi, the ‘Speedy Gazelle of Iran’, equalised five minutes before half-time. Unfortunately for Iran, the score remained 1-1 at full-time and the Aussies had their crucial away goal. The hopes and dreams of an entire nation depended on the second leg of the play-off. The task had been cut out for Iran considering their awful record away from home.
The Melbourne Cricket Ground played host to the decider and once again, it was Kewell who put his side ahead before Aurelio Vidmar made it 2-0. The odds for Iran to qualify for the World Cup were now astronomical. But in the 72nd minute, Kewell was booked for a collision against the Iranian goalkeeper Ahmadreza Abedzadeh. This somewhat quelled the Aussie dominance for a bit, as a result of which, Iran responded with two quick-fire goals. Bagheri pulled one back in the 75th minute after being set up by Azizi before Azizi himself scored the most important goal in Iran’s history to send them to the World Cup.
The streets of Tehran erupted in joy as Team Melli reached the promised land. So jubilant were the Iranian people that as many as 5000 women wrestled their way past the turnstiles to enter the Azadi Stadium to greet the Iranian team for their homecoming. The Azadi was prohibited for women but given occasion, even the religious police did not exercise their power.
The political tension was palpable the moment the draws were made for the group stage that put Iran and the US in the same group along with Germany and Yugoslavia.
For Iran and the US, this was much more than just football. Concerns over world peace and geo-politics far exceeded the emotions involved in a game of football. Liberals feared the use of the World Cup as a modus operandi for spreading propaganda by the conservatives while the conservatives dreaded the “un-Islamic” ambience of France that would expose their humiliating abhorrence towards modernity.
Not to mention the People’s Mujahideen, a group of quasi-Marxists and Iranian exiles in Europe who have previously utilised football’s popularity to propagate their anti-governmental stance against the Iranian regime.
However, it was surprisingly a French television network that ignited the first fires of this carefully anticipated inferno. A few days before Iran’s clash with the US, a French channel broadcasted the Sally Field starring 1991 film ‘Not Without My Daughter’ based on the book of the same name.
The film depicts the life of an American woman living with her abusive husband in Iran under the strict laws of theocracy. The American woman eventually leaves his Iranian husband and flees for the US with their daughter.
So controversial was this airing, that the Iranian football federation lodged an official complaint on grounds of deliberate incitement of political tension.
”It is not the right thing to show this untrue thing about Iranian culture,” said Talebi. ”In the World Cup, everyone speaks of unity and love and togetherness, and somebody shows this film. Nobody can benefit, except to make everybody unhappy in our camp.”
Azizi, the reigning Asian Player of the Year, was determined to beat the Americans at all cost even before the film was aired. Imagine his resolve after the fiasco.
“We will not lose the game,” he said during a pre-World Cup tournament in Teheran in April. “Many families of martyrs are expecting us to win. We will win for their sake.”
The martyrs in question were the casualties from the Iran-Iraq war that Azizi believed to have been started by the US for its own interest in 1980. It is important to note that his stance was entirely from the point of view of a sporting rival and not that of an anti-American Iranian patriot.
It is also worth remembering that the Americans were denied a chance to scout their opponents prior to the World Cup. After an Iranian wrestling team was held up in customs during a visit to the United States, Sampson and his coaches were not allowed to watch Iran play in a pre-World Cup tournament in Tehran.
While the conservatives within the Regime remained staunch in their anti-American stance, the footballers had nothing but friendship in their minds. The Iranians were expected to show some sign of solidarity with the Americans in what was to become a thinly veiled act of rebellion against the Ayatollah’s express orders.
Before their 1-0 defeat against Yugoslavia in Saint-Etienne, Iranian players presented their opponents with roses. Something similar was anticipated for their tie against the US.
“I promise, there will be a surprise,” said Talebi before the game.
The Americans meanwhile had lost their game against Germany in Paris. Therefore, hopes of qualifying to the next round largely depended on this highly charged tie. Played at the Stade de Gerland in Lyon, few events surrounding the match made headline news before kick-off.
Mojahhedin-e Khalq, an Iraq-and-Saddam-Hussein-backed militant group had, as per reports, bought 7,000 of the tickets to stage a protest against Iran. But the French police made it certain that no party, organisation or revolutionary group could use this opportunity to push forward their own political agenda.
As if this was not enough, issues on the pitch prior to kick-off added induced even more headache for organisers.
As per laws of the game, ‘Team B’ should walk towards ‘Team A’ for the pre-match tradition of shaking hands. Unfortunately for FIFA, the Iranians were the designated ‘Team B’ on the day and Aayatollah Ali Hosseini Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, had issued express orders that no Iranian must walk towards the Americans to shake hands. After a few minutes of intense diplomacy, a compromise was reached and it as agreed upon by all parties that the Americans would walk towards the Iranians.
Then something remarkable happened. Each Iranian player carried a bouquet of white roses, symbolising peace, to present to their American counterparts. An iconic photo was taken featuring all 22 players hugging each other in what was a mark of solidarity during troubling times between the two nations. Momentarily at least, politics was put out of the picture for the true spirit of football to be celebrated.
The match itself was a fairly entertaining affair. Iran took the lead just five minutes before the half-time interval through Hamid Estili before Mehdi Mahdavikia added another goal in the 83rd minute to establish a 2-0 lead. The Americans bagged a late consolation through Brian McBride but Iran held on to their slender lead for the final few minutes to register their first ever victory at a World Cup event.
Both countries were eliminated from the group stage, but the victory against the Americans was almost as good as winning the World Cup for many Iranians back home.
Twenty years have passed since that day in Lyon. Iran would be making their second consecutive appearance at a World Cup event in Russia. Grouped with Portugal, Spain and Morocco, Team Melli face an uphill battle to make it to the first knockout round.
Iran and Portugal played each other at the 2006 World Cup in Germany when Cristiano Ronaldo’s penalty helped the Portuguese register a 2-0 victory in Frankfurt. Coached by Ronaldo’s compatriot Carlos Queiroz, the Iranians would be looking forward to meet their old foes once again.
“It’s essential for us to have detailed information on the technical aspects of the World Cup and how it’s going to unfold,” said Queiroz.
“Iran have come on a lot. With the experience of Brazil 2014 under our belts and with several players having since moved to Europe, we’ve become more solid and competitive. Playing in the Asian leagues is not the same as playing international football. We’ve become a better side. We’re the best Asian team in the FIFA Ranking, we didn’t lose a game in the qualifiers, and we only conceded a couple of goals. That’s why we’re going to Russia with a very clear dream in mind.”
And that dream is to reach the knockout stages of the competition. Iranian football has come leaps and bounds since 1998. Having not lost a single game in the qualifiers, Iran are undoubtedly Asia’s biggest hope at the World Cup.
Compared to that 1998 squad, most of the players in Iran’s current squad ply their trade in European football leagues. Three players, defender Milad Mohammadi, midfielder Saeid Ezatolahi and striker Sardar Azmoun play in Russia. When asked how important it was that some players have experience playing in Russian conditions Queiroz said: “It’s very important, no question. It’s all part of the development process for Iranian players. In 2011 we had just the one player based in Spain, but now we’ve got nearly 60 percent of the starting line-up playing in Europe, three of whom happen to be in the Russian league.
“This is going to be important for the team because it’s going to build our knowledge and give us more of an affinity with the Russians. That just shows you all the different ways in which Iranian football has progressed over the last eight years.”
It will be foolhardy to expect anything big from these players but it will also be ignorant of us to not appreciate Iranian football’s abjuring of conservatism and embracing modernity in the last decade.