Iran Vs USA: Football’s Most Politically Charged Game, Remembering '98

29/11/2022

Alexandre Von Hornstein looks at the political impact of Iran Vs USA at the 1998 World Cup.

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Image by Mahdi Zare/Fars News Agency

By Alexandre Freiherr Von Hornstein

At the 1998 World Cup, tensions loomed as Iran and the US took to the field in a game that faced threats from terrorist groups and animosity between their respective governments was at its peak. Yet both teams rose above the expectations of them as footballers and did more to repair relations in 90 minutes than diplomats did in 20 years. 24 years later in Qatar, the teams meet again with little goodwill between their governments and everything to play for on the pitch. In the midst of civil strife, Iran stands on the precipice of reaching the round of 16 for the first in its history, whilst a young unbeaten US team seeks to claim its first victory in the tournament.

Politics and bad blood seeped into the ‘98 fixture before kickoff. The US team and their families needed a security detail, with plain-clothed police being present in all training sessions. Iranian players such as Khodadad Azizi pledged victory for families of the 500,000 lost Iranian lives in the Iraqi invasion of Iran, an invasion the US supported. Mujahedin Khalq, a terrorist group linked with Saddam Hussein, bought seven thousand tickets intending to disrupt the game calling for the presence of French riot police. Organisers instructed cameramen to avoid provocative banners whilst scrambling to make compromises with the demands of the Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei that the Iranians did not walk toward the Americans. With all on edge, the stage was set and the script suggested the worst would occur. However, a twist was at hand and the players had other plans.

Iranians gifted Americans bouquets of white roses, a sign of peace, and Americans joined them in a group photo that gave football one of its most striking images. On full display was an expression of shared humanity between two people’s presumed enemies, an assumption shattered by this great game of football. The match itself proved a closely fought contest, with the Americans striking the bar on three occasions, and the Iranians proving clinical and capable of closing out the game to win 2-1. Whilst neither team progressed to the next round, the victory gave Iran its first victory in the prestigious competition and ensured celebration amongst the football-loving populace. Yet above all else, the game paved the way for diplomacy to thrive in the coming years. Sanctions would be lifted, wrongs would be admitted and the same Iranian team would be the first of many Iranian sports teams to be invited on US soil since 1979.

Since President Bush’s inclusion of Iran as a member of the “Axis of Evil” in 2002, relations between the two nations have largely returned to the way they were in the years prior to 1998. Since 2002, things haven’t gotten much better. President Trump’s withdrawal of the US from the Iran Nuclear Deal in 2018, and the US killing of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani in 2020 have only made things worse. Diplomatic overtures are often struck down as swiftly as they are brought up.

Yet it is not the animosity between these nations that clouds this clash, but rather internal strife within Iran that has divided the nation. What started with the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini has resulted in the largest protest in decades seeking to overthrow the Islamic Republic and ensure the rights of women. As of now, over 400 protesters have died and over 15,000 have been arrested as a result of a strict crackdown. The Iranian team, one that has felt the effects of sanctions and politics in the past, has walked the fence on the issue, having both refused to sing the anthem in solidarity with protestors one game, and then singing it the next game. Fans following them in Qatar have been similarly split, with some booing their anthem and displaying the slogan “Woman, Life, Freedom” whilst others cheer them on with pride with the round of 16 in sight.

Much like their counterparts in 1998, the US team has been apolitical, with their focus aimed at securing their first win and showing that this young hungry team is ready to compete now, rather than in four years when they are co-hosts. Yet two days before their clash, in a now-deleted post, US Soccer Federation posts on social media showed the Iranian flag without the emblem of the Islamic Republic; seemingly without consulting players or coaches. These now deleted posts have reignited tensions, with the Iranian Football Federation calling for a USA ban from the World Cup for “offending the country’s dignity”. With flared tensions, civil strife within Iran, mutual disdain between governments, and the significant footballing stakes, organisers of this match might face an even greater challenge than their 1998 counterparts.

This game will likely not pave the way for diplomacy as it did in 1998. Yet remembering the impact that game had and the role that football played in relations between the two countries, should be in the minds of all fans and players in attendance in Tuesday’s fiery clash.