When the US and Iran teams meet in Qatar on Tuesday, they will be doing so with the protests and violence that have convulsed Iran – threatening the very nature of the regime that has been in power for more than 40 years – as its backdrop. But this is not the first time that the two countries have met on a soccer pitch under the strain of geopolitical tensions.
The US had qualified for the 1998 World Cup in France, and in December 1997, it was drawn in the same group as Germany, Yugoslavia and, most significantly, Iran. That was the first time that Iran and the US, sometimes described officially in Iran as the ‘Great Satan.’ Just like this time in 2022, when the US played Iran in 1998, it was a must-win match for the US if it was to progress to the knockout stages.
“That was a bit of a distraction,” Steve Sampson told CNN Sport, adding that FIFA wanted the build-up to solely be about the match and, as a relatively young 41-year-old coach, he ensured his team talks were about “football and nothing else.”
With hindsight, Sampson said he regrets that approach, adding that he could have motivated his side by talking about the political history between the two countries.
On the eve of the match, the Iranian team had received orders from its government not to shake hands, which was FIFA protocol, with the Americans.
“We came to the conclusion that instead of who walks towards who, we will have a joint team photo taken,” Younes Masoudi told FIFATV in 2018.
So on the evening of June 21, at Lyon’s Stade de Gerland, the players took to the pitch and in a choreographed pregame ceremony, Iranian players presented their opponents with white roses as a symbol of peace and the teams posed for a photo together.
“I’ll remember that photo for the rest of my life,” Jalal Talebi, Iran’s then-coach who resided in the US at the time, once said in an interview with the Guardian. But Sampson said the pre-match ceremony “slightly took away from our focus in the game.”
There was high security. “We had 150 armed police, which was unprecedented for a World Cup match. I said we need to bring these 150 and surround this group of fans in order to stop them from invading the pitch,” Masoudi told FIFATV in the 2018 interview.
Iran won 2-1 — its first at a World Cup — prompting wild celebrations in Tehran. The New York Times reported at the time that “thousands of celebrating fans took to the streets, some women without their scarves.”
The match remained at the forefront of Sampson’s mind for years. “It was devastating, heart-breaking to lose to Iran,” he said. “We were more disappointed so that we didn’t advance in the World Cup.”
“What happened on that pitch during those two hours was a lesson to the whole world at large that despite our differences, despite the fact that we may come from different backgrounds, we can live peacefully together,” Masoudi told FIFATV in 2018.