The Mother of All Games: Iran vs USA at France ’98

Posted: November 28, 2022 in Uncategorized, World Cup
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The collective sucking of teeth could have knocked the World Cup trophy from its pedestal in Marseille’s Stade Vélodrome. Making the draw for the following summer’s World Cup Finals, Sepp Blatter (presumably relieved not to be bantered off the stage by Robin Williams like last time) plucked the United States from the bowl and deposited them in Group F. Waiting for them there were European Champions Germany; a Yugoslavia side comprised of players from Serbia, Montenegro and Kosovo; and, most significantly, the nation that considered them ‘the Great Satan’ – Iran.

Iran and the USA had been mortal political enemies since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, when The Shah – a leader propped up by the US and the West – was deposed and exiled, replaced by an anti-Western Islamic Republic headed by Ayatollah Khomeini. Later that year, a group of radicalised students stormed the US Embassy in Tehran and took 52 people hostage. It would take 444 days to secure their release, with one failed rescue attempt resulting in a helicopter crash that killed eight US service personnel. When conflict erupted between Iran and neighbours Iraq in 1980, the US government provided the Iraqis with economic aid, military intelligence, special ops training and dual-use technology. In the decade since the war ended, relations between Tehran and Washington had remained icy, with the Clinton Administration imposing tough economic sanctions in 1995 in response to Iran’s nuclear programme.

Naturally, following the draw, representatives from both nations insisted that they wanted to focus purely on football. That would present its own problems for Iran and the USA, however, as football in both nations was in turmoil…


Anyone fancy managing Iran?

Iran should’ve been on top of the world. They were returning to the World Cup for the first time since 1978, and they’d qualified (the last country to do so in a tournament newly expanded to 32 teams) in the most dramatic fashion, a late play-off goal in Melbourne sending them to France and killing the dream of Terry Venables and Australia. That led to extraordinary scenes on the streets of Tehran, with the largest public gathering since Khomeini’s funeral in 1989 massing to party and drink alcohol late into the night.

Those celebrations, however, were viewed with suspicion by the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameini, and the country’s religious authorities. Equally disturbing to the clerics was the news that 5,000 women were among a crowd of 80,000 who’d forced down a gate in entering the national stadium to welcome the team home. At one time, women had accounted for around 20% of crowds at football matches in Iran, but they had been banned from stadiums in 1987 by the regime. Many in powerful positions in the country felt disquiet at the power of football and the loss of control that came with it.

That was bad news for Valdeir Vieira, the suave Brazilian parachuted in at short notice to steer the team through the play-offs at the end of 1997. Vieira, the country’s first foreign coach, brought flair and swagger seldom seen in the national team and quickly became beloved. His flamboyance and Western influences, however, made the more conservative members of the establishment uncomfortable. ‘The ramifications of Vieira’s appointment made waves,’ Iran supporter Mehdi Minivand told Jon Spurling in Death or Glory: The Dark Side of the World Cup. ‘Vieira wore a necktie. Religious extremists disapproved. Neckties had been worn by prosperous men under the Shah. Symbols like that matter in Iran.’ In January 1998, Iran appointed a new president of its Football Federation, Mosen Farahani, and one of his first acts was to replace Vieira with the Croatian coach Tomislav Ivic.

There was no questioning Ivic’s pedigree; he’d been the man to succeed Rinus Michels at Ajax in the 1970s and won the Eredivisie, part of a continental title-winning spree that also took in his native Yugoslavia as well as Greece, Belgium and Portugal. However, he’d had doubts about the Iran job, and found it difficult to overcome the cultural differences between himself and his players. He shifted the focus of the team wholesale towards defending, stifling the team’s best attackers – strike duo Ali Daei (already a national hero) and Asian Footballer of the Year Khodadad Azizi. The players reacted badly, losing friendlies to Macedonia and Hungary as supporters chanted for Vieira. “We will be laughed at in France,” warned Ivic, already sensing he might not be long for the job. He was right. When Roma’s reserves walloped the team 7-1 in another friendly, Ivic, after just five months, was handed his cards.

Now the federation turned to an Iranian, Technical Advisor and former international player Jalal Talebi. Talebi, ironically residing in California at the time, had just three weeks to try and coax some cohesion from his 500-1 outsiders.

Photo: WYNC Studios

Steve of Destruction

Like Iran, the USNMT should have been soaring. Their exploits as host nation at the previous World Cup had finally put soccer on the American sporting agenda. Attempts to find a high-profile successor to perennial miracle worker Bora Milutinovic might have foundered (Carlos Quiroz and World Cup winner Carlos Alberto Parreira were among those to turn the gig down); yet the eventual choice, Steve Sampson, despite having never played nor coached professionally prior to being a member of Milutinovic’s staff at USA ’94, had achieved some eye-catching early results. Sampson’s US team had battered Mexico 4-0, the country’s biggest ever victory over their eternal rivals. They’d placed fourth at the 1995 Copa America, swatting aside holders Argentina 3-0 in the process and reducing Diego Maradona to tears.

The feelgood factor extended to the domestic game too, with MLS’s maiden season in 1996 attracting higher than expected crowds. Many of the heroes of USA ’94 were tempted back from Europe to spearhead the league – Eric Wynalda, Tab Ramos, Cobi Jones, John Harkes and poster boy Alexi Lalas all returned.

Beneath the surface, however, things were corroding rapidly. Tensions between the players and federation arose following a player walkout over bonuses in 1996. Meanwhile, over the course of a lengthy qualification campaign, relations between Sampson and his senior players began to curdle messily. These were the players who’d found themselves on cereal boxes post-’94, and who’d championed Sampson for the job to an unconvinced US Soccer Federation. Now, the likes of Ramos, Marcelo Balboa and Lalas were being gradually phased out to make way for the next generation. They would not go quietly.

One veteran who did appear very much in Sampson’s plans was Harkes. The first American to play in the English Premier League, the midfielder brought dynamism, energy and leadership. Sampson gave him the armband (irking the previous holder, Balboa, in the process) and declared him his “captain for life”.

The federation had still half-hoped a more seasoned manager might become available, and left Sampson as ‘Interim Coach’. Shortly after qualification for France ’98 was secured, however, his position was confirmed. This, according to some players, marked a turning point. Where previously Sampson had deferred to them, now he sought to put his stamp on the team and became prone to microcoaching. “As he became more of a coach, we became less of a team,” Ramos would lament. Harkes, in his autobiography, wrote at length about the change: ‘He was constantly stopping our training sessions to tell a player he needed to move five more yards this way or that, overanalysing every move. He wouldn’t let us play.’

Then again, Harkes had reasons of his own for not being especially pro-Sampson. On 4th April 1998, Sampson named his 22-man squad for the finals. To general astonishment, the captain wasn’t on the list.

Sampson claimed the decision was the result of a cumulation of infractions – Harkes had reportedly refused to play left back in a friendly against the Netherlands, then gone out on the lash with Wynalda and Joe Max-Moore in Bruges a few days before another friendly with Belgium.

Wynalda and Harkes were the best of friends, a comedy double act who performed routines from Jim Carrey films for the amusement of their teammates. Now the laughter stopped. Years later, the real reason for Harkes’ excommunication from the squad was revealed on a US football phone-in with Wynalda and Sampson. Harkes, it transpired, had been having an affair with Wynalda’s wife…

Wynalda, for his part, twice asked Sampson to reconsider his decision. “He was the heart of the team,” he told Roger Bennett on WYNC’s American Fiasco podcast in 2018. “I thought that if I could handle it, then Steve should have been able to.”

Sampson stood firm. “It was strike three,” he insisted, in the most American way possible, on American Fiasco.

Harkes took it well at least

Increasingly, questions were asked of the coach’s man management. Balboa never got over being abruptly stripped of the captaincy. “No coach has ever screwed with my head the way Sampson did,” he told Bennett. Left back Jeff Agoos, meanwhile, had been a part of virtually every squad since 1988, but Sampson had lost faith in him after a silly red card during qualifying. Taking advantage of US citizenship laws, he sourced a new left back playing in the Bundesliga. Karlsruher’s David Regis was from Martinique, spoke very little English, but was eligible for naturalisation via his American wife. Sampson, unbelievably, asked Agoos to help Regis pass his citizenship test, then paired the veteran with his replacement as room mates in France. It was an unhappy, fractious bunch who arrived at the team’s World Cup HQ, a remote 15th Century chateau 30 miles from Lyon, where they were soon bored and restless, testing their fraying bonds further with late-night, high-stakes poker games.

Picture Alliance/DPA

The Mother of All Games

French police and security teams were understandably jittery in the build-up to the Iran/US game. Earlier that year, European law enforcement agencies had uncovered and foiled a terror plot backed by Osama Bin-Laden, targeting the England and US teams at the tournament. In Marseille, the gendarmerie had dealt with rioting England fans by blasting them with tear gas. A political powder keg was the last thing the Lyon constabulary needed.

Among the Iranian players, feelings about the game and their opponents were mixed. Some were tired of the politics and just wanted to show what they could do. Others put the tensions front and centre. Azizi invoked the Iran-Iraq war, saying “many families of martyrs expect us to win”. He and other Iran players called a press conference in the days before the game to decry the screening on French television of the 1991 film Not Without My Daughter, in which an American woman (Golden Raspberry-nominated Sally Field) and her young daughter escape from Iran and an abusive Iranian husband. Furious at the film’s depiction of Iranians and the timing of the broadcast, Talebi supported his players: “It was not the right time to show kind of untrue story about our culture,” he said. “Nobody can benefit from this except to make people unhappy in our camp.”

The US squad was playing down the political angle. “I haven’t heard anyone say do it for Bill Clinton,” said Ramos. Yet the State Department did contact USSF President Hank Steinbrecher on the day of the game to check that the US was expected to win, while Clinton himself called for peace on the day of the game.

Peace was something in short supply in the American camp. As expected, both the US and Iran had lost their opening games to European opposition. But while Iran were spirited in a narrow 1-0 reverse against Yugoslavia, the US were appalling in a 2-0 defeat to Germany that might easily have been double or even treble that margin. Seven World Cup debutants started, with no place in the line-up for Lalas, Agoos or Ramos.

Now the senior players turned fully on Sampson, criticising him openly in the media. The coach called them out in an explosive team meeting, reading out the quotes attributed to the various detractors in his ranks. He asked the USSF for permission to send Lalas, Ramos and Wynalda home, but the request was denied. Now he made yet more changes for the Iran game, finally ditching his favoured 3-6-1 system (deeply unpopular with the players for the physical demands it placed on them) for a gung-ho 3-5-2 and making five changes to frontload it with attackers, even playing a striker, Max-Moore, as a defensive midfielder. The New York Times‘ football correspondent likened the line-up to ‘a mixer on the first night of a cruise’.

As the teams lined up for the anthems, one more political tightrope had to be traversed. Iran had been designated as ‘Team B’ by FIFA, and protocol dictated that they should walk towards Team A to initiate the post-anthem handshakes. Supreme Leader Khameini, however, had forbidden the Iranian players from walking towards their American counterparts. Fortunately, FIFA’s technical liaison in Lyon was Mehdi Masoudi, an Iranian who’d spent years living in North America, and he negotiated for both teams to walk towards each other simultaneously. Iran’s players gifted the US team white roses, a symbol of peace, and the teams posed for a joint photograph.

The game would be played in a good spirit, and there were no clashes between the two sets of fans either, who mingled and embraced merrily outside the stadium before the game. Where tensions did exist, they were between different Iranian factions. Fans who tried to enter carrying the flag of The Shah were denied entry. Inside the ground, there were flashpoints between pro-government supporters and supporters of the militant anti-government group Mojahedin-e-Khalq (MEK) but even these passed off without serious incident.

On the pitch, the United States ripped into Iran from the off, Brian McBride hitting the bar after just three minutes. Claudio Reyna struck the post half an hour later as they kept the pressure on. Talebi though, had cannily managed to blend the flair of Vieira’s team with the organisation Ivic had worked to instill, creating a potent counter-attacking threat, and Sampson, in not fielding a proper holding player, had left the back door wide open. Shortly before half time, Iran’s own holding midfielder, Hamid Estili (incongruously dropped off at the airport by Nick Hancock as part of a Channel 4 documentary), looped a header over Kasey Keller and into the US net.

It was an unexpected lead, but the second half followed the same pattern. Again USMNT attacked relentlessly, hitting the woodwork a third time when Regis got forward on the overlap. Again Iran broke away, the afterburners of Peruzi’s 20-year-old ‘rocket’, winger Mehdi Mahdavikia, carrying him half the length of the pitch to fire home a fine solo effort. McBride’s late consolation couldn’t put any gloss on the result for the US. They were out.

Revellers again filled the streets of Tehran.”It’s a big victory for the Iranian nation,” a proud Talebi declared, “not because it was the United States, but because it was Iran’s first World Cup win.” The Ayatollah, however, had a different message: “Tonight,” said Khameini, “the strong and arrogant opponent felt the bitter taste of defeat at your hands. Be happy that you have made the Iranian nation happy.”


Iran were soon on their way home too, following a slim defeat to Germany, but returned to another heroes’ welcome. The tournament allowed several members of their squad to get their dream move – Daei went to Bayern Munich, where he became the first Asian footballer to play in the Champions League. Mahdavikia joined Daei and Azizi in Germany, spending a season at VFL Bochum before beginning an eight-year love affair with Hamburg. Mehrdad Minivand, Mehdi Pashazadeh and Alireza Mansourian also moved to European clubs.

It was a decidedly different story for the US squad. “We’re just about ready to explode,” said Lalas post-Iran. Defeat to Yugoslavia completed a shameful hat trick, confirming the team as the worst performers of the 32. Wynalda, Ramos, Agoos and Balboa were all benched again. So was Lalas, who didn’t play a minute of the tournament. “It was naive to think an inexperienced coach might value experienced players,” sniped Wynalda. “I gave up trying to figure Sampson out a long time ago,” said Lalas. The defender whose red goatee had been US soccer’s signifier for much of the decade would never play for his country again. One American Associated Press writer summed up the side’s World Cup perfectly. ‘They stunk. And they hated their coach.’

The intervening years have seen Sampson somewhat reappraised. The coming to light of the Harkes/Wynalda situation made his decision more understandable. Lalas, a decidedly mixed coaching career of his own now behind him, is remorseful. “I was probably an asshole,” he confessed on American Fiasco. “I was a malcontent, giving people the evil eye.”

The France ’98 debacle frittered away any remaining goodwill from USA ’94. ‘The game had not touched the heart of the American sports fan’, wrote David Wangerin in Soccer in a Football World. ‘And some began to wonder if it ever would.’ It took the Women’s team lifting the World Cup the following year to repair some of the damage.

The peace offerings and camaraderie stemming from the USA/Iran game prompted further efforts to develop the conciliatory spirit between the nations, with two friendlies planned, one on US soil, one in Tehran. The teams played out a 1-1 draw in Pasadena in January 2000, but the Herculean effort it took to get the game played – involving airport rows over fingerprinting, death threats, decoy teams and closed airspace – underlined how deep suspicions still ran. The rematch in Iran never happened.

For that evening in Lyon in June 1998, however, the countries felt closer than they’d been in a long, long time. Jeff Agoos was proud of both teams’ efforts in that respect at least. “We did more in 90 minutes than the politicians did in 20 years.”


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