From the moment the two teams were paired together, their names pulled from the pot months before the 1998 World Cup, there was an extra weight to this fixture. “The mother of all games,” it was dubbed. On June 21, 1998 the United States of America and Iran would face each other in Lyon against a tense political backdrop that had been in place since the Iranian revolution in the late 1970s. It was a game that didn’t disappoint.
Iran would go on to win 2-1, with both teams eliminated from the tournament at the group stage, but the impact this match made was profound, with its reverberations felt for years to come. To truly understand the complexities of this game, it’s important to grasp the origins of the political tension between the two nations.
The last Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi who was overthrown in the Iranian revolution of 1979, was pro-American. This revolution led to the abolishment of the Iranian monarchy and the establishment of the country as an Islamic republic. 19 years separated this from the World Cup between Iran and the US at the 1998 World Cup, but politically and culturally America was still viewed as the enemy.
There was talk of the fixture at the United Nations, with US secretary of state at the time Madeleine K. Albright calling for the game to be used to move towards a friendlier relationship between the two countries. Others used tales of the American Embassy hostage situation in 1979 to argue that Iran and the United States were sworn enemies and this World Cup match should be considered just another episode in a long-running feud.
Iran in particularly wanted to use the match to flex their muscle. The country’s Supreme Leader Khamenei took exception to the notion of Iran having to watch towards the USA side for the pre-match handshakes, with FIFA classifying the US as Team A and Iran as Team B. And so it was arranged for the routine to be flipped. It was the Americans who ended up walking to the Iranians before kick off.
A terrorist organisation bought thousands of tickets for the match with the intention of staging a protest. It emerged that the organisation had been funded by Saddam Hussein who sought to destabilise the Iranian regime. There were also suggestions of a pitch invasion. French riot police were stationed outside the ground in preparation.
This isn’t to say that the two federations involved engaged in open warfare. In fact, the Iranian federation were keen to use the game to show the way in which the country had changed over the past two decades. The two teams posed, as normal, for a pre-match picture. A bunch of white roses, a symbol of peace in Iran, was handed to the US captain, Thomas Dooley.
Iran’s victory was treated as a moment of celebration back home. It’s said that fans drank alcohol in the streets, while women removed their head scarves to join in the festivities. The Iranian regime took no action, as they ordinarily would have, because to have done so would have turned them into the bad guys. They recognised this a landmark achievement for the country.
Some claim this match, and more importantly the reaction to it, ultimately led to the modernisation of Iran as a country. “We did more in 90 minutes than the politicians did in 20 years,” said American defender Jeff Agoos. The two sides played a friendly game at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena not long after the 1998 World Cup, symbolising the extent to which tensions had cooled.
Of course, the relationship between Iran and the United States has recently been heated by Trump and his firebrand style of international diplomacy. But while there has tension on both sides of late, it doesn’t even come close to the way things were in the lead up to the 1998 World Cup, when Iran and the USA went toe-to-toe on a football pitch in Lyon.
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