“I remember it like it was yesterday,” says Steve Sampson, his face breaking into a smile before spending his Friday morning reminiscing about what has frequently been described as the most politically charged match in World Cup history.
Sampson has just retired as the coach of California Polytechnic State University’s men’s soccer team, but 24 years ago the American was at the helm for the US men’s national soccer team (USMNT) during a never to be forgotten period in soccer history.
The US had qualified for the 1998 World Cup in France with ease. However, in December 1997 in Marseille, six months before the start of the tournament, soccer took a backseat when the US was drawn in the same group as Germany, Yugoslavia and, most significantly, a geopolitical rival, Iran.
It was the first time that Iran and the US, sometimes described officially in Iran as the ‘Great Satan,’ were to meet on the soccer pitch and the biggest sporting occasion between the countries since the 1979 revolution.
“Instantly, it was less about Germany, less about Yugoslavia, more about Iran,” Sampson told CNN Sport. “That was a bit of a distraction.”
Over two decades later, the USMNT again faces Iran in the group stages of a World Cup. Just like in 1998, it is a must-win match for the US if it is to progress to the knockout stages and, just like in 1998, the geopolitical situation between the two countries remains strained, as it has been for over 40 years.
‘Incredible amount of security’
It is a long and complicated history, but political tensions between Iran and the US have been simmering for years.
For decades, Iran had been backed by Western power and money until the 1979 revolution, when the US-backed Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi was forced to flee the country as Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini became the leader of the new republic.
In November that year, dozens of Americans were taken hostage for 444 days after Iranian students stormed the US embassy in Tehran, demanding the Shah – admitted into the US for cancer treatment – be extradited.
It was during this crisis that the US cut all diplomatic ties with Iran, and formal diplomatic relations have never been restored.
The bad blood between the two countries was made worse after Iraq’s invasion of Iran in 1980, starting an eight-year regional war, with Iran accusing the US of backing Iraq by selling its arms to them.
When Sampson’s team arrived in France, there was some talk about on-the-pitch matters – the tactics, the team selections – yet the Iran match overshadowed everything, he said.
The USMNT had to face Germany, then the reigning European champion in its opening match, yet the Iran match, the second group game, was everyone else’s focus. “It almost took away from the Germany match,” he said.
Sampson’s men lost to Germany 2-0, putting added significance on the next game if the team was to have any hope of qualifying for the knockout stages. Yet, there was more than points and qualification on the line.
“There was an incredible amount of security, even for our families, a lot of plainclothes policemen, plainclothes security,” Sampson, who retired as Cal Poly’s head coach last month, recalled.
The team, Sampson says, was “very much aware” of the security operation around them and “appreciated it.” It wasn’t unusual to get police escorts to and from stadiums as heightened security is, of course, part and parcel of any major tournament. However, this was different and neither FIFA nor World Cup security, Sampson said, informed the squad of “the extent our family members were being watched.”
Speaking to FIFATV four years ago, Mehrdad Masoudi, FIFA’s media officer at France 1998, said: “There were a lot of rumors, the US team was thought to have been the target of certain radical groups. There was a lot of security around the US national team training camp in France. There was also some rumors of [an] anti-Iranian government group who wanted to take advantage of the occasion. FIFA took all measures required in order for that game to happen.”
‘I would do it differently’
Sampson said 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. He could have motivated his side by talking about the political history between the two countries, he said, but chose not to. “I truly believe the Iranians made it completely about politics,” said Sampson.
“The national team’s job is to use any, and all, opportunities available to him to motivate his team and I believe I would do it differently if I were to do it again. My team talk leading up in the days before, in training, would have been more motivational from a political standpoint.”
Regardless of what FIFA wanted, politics and soccer were intertwined for this head-to-head.
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,” 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.”
Artemis Moshtaghian, a CNN journalist who wasn’t working for the network when she attended the match as an Iran supporter, described the atmosphere as “festive, electric and yet underlined with a sense of tension.”
“There was a lot of drinking and chanting,” she recalled. “Iran fans were singing and chanting along with, or against, US fans but in a friendly manner. Everyone was excited to be there, to be witness to two political foes fighting for bragging rights on the pitch.”
But shortly after kickoff, there was a reminder, if it were needed, that this was more than a soccer match, as political banners were unfurled by Iranian expatriates.
“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.
Moshtaghian said the atmosphere changed once Iranian fans realized there were people supporting Mujahideen-e-Khalq, better known as MeK, a dissident group that at the time was on the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist groups, in the stadium.
The group, removed from the US terror list in 2012, had been put on the list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations in 1997 because of the killing of six Americans in Iran in the 1970s and an attempted attack against the Iranian mission to the United Nations in 1992.
“The MeK has a big presence in France and, as such, large groups of supporters attended the Iran vs. US match armed with T-shirts printed with their leader Maryam Rajavi’s face plastered on them and waved around Iran’s pre-revolutionary sun and lion flag,” Moshtaghian explained.
“These MeK supporters were sprinkled throughout the stadium and had bought seats in several different sections of the stadium and unfurled Maryam Rajavi banners during the game.”
For Sampson, his half-time talk was “all about tactics.”
Remembering the match in detail, Sampson talked about how his team dominated, hit the crossbar and the post “four or five times,” conceded twice to two counter-attacks, with Hamid Estili and Mehdi Mahdavikia scoring for Iran, before Brian McBride halved the deficit in the 87th minute to set up a tense finale. His team was, he says, too anxious to get three points. “We possessed a lot of the ball, but Iran managed the game really well in those moments,” said Sampson.
Iran’s 2-1 victory was its first at a World Cup and one that ensured the US would progress no further in the competition. In Tehran there were wild celebrations. The New York Times reported at the time that “thousands of celebrating fans took to the streets, some women without their scarves.”
Moshtaghian said the match left an “indelible mark,” on her. “It was my first time attending a World Cup match and being a part of the complexity of emotion that surrounded the match is something that I carry with me to this day when I watch Iran play,” she said.
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 disappointed more so that we didn’t advance in the World Cup.”
At the time, US defender Jeff Agoos said that the players “did more in 90 minutes than the politicians did in 20 years.” Sampson described his former player’s remark as “very astute.”
“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.
Omid Namazi, Iranian national team’s assistant coach from 2011 to 2014, described the win over the US as a “huge moment.”
“Obviously with relations between Iran and the US and the politically charged game that happened, beating the US was a sort of a revenge for the people,” he told CNN Sport. “They feel they’ve been oppressed by and sanctioned by the US for a long time, and it’s really affected people’s lives and the economy in the country. So, they were relieved. They felt good about that.”
‘This time around, it’s different’
When the two countries 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.
The protests, referred to by experts as the most significant since the establishment of clerical rule following the 1979 revolution, were sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman who died after being detained by Iran’s morality police allegedly for not abiding by the country’s conservative dress code.
Namazi said: “This time around, it’s different. I’ve heard people even say that, you know, ‘I’m rooting for the US.’ But again, I can’t say that for the majority of people because they still have their own feelings towards the US.”
During the playing of the national anthems before Iran’s opening match against England last Monday, the Iranian players stood silent in what was widely interpreted as a show of solidarity with those protesting back home.
Ahead of the second match against Wales, which Iran won 2-0 to maintain its hopes of qualification, the players quietly joined in the singing of the anthem.
On Monday it was reported that the families of Iran’s team have been threatened with imprisonment and torture if the players fail to “behave” ahead of the match against the US on Tuesday, a source involved in the security of the games said.
It remains to be seen what will happen before kickoff on Tuesday, though relations were already strained after US Soccer showed support for the protesters in Iran by changing Iran’s flag to remove the emblem of the Islamic Republic on its social media accounts for 24 hours.
US Soccer told CNN on Sunday that it wanted to show “support for the women in Iran fighting for basic human rights.” It had always planned to go back to the original flag, US Soccer said.
But Iran state-aligned media Tasnim said Sunday that the United States should be kicked out of the World Cup and suspended for 10 games for a “distorted image” of the country’s flag.
Decades have gone by, players have changed, leaders have changed, but tensions remain as high as ever.