Politics have stayed out of the spotlight for most of the first week of the 2018 World Cup, but when Iran faces Spain in Wednesday’s 2018 World Cup showdown in Kazan, Russia, it will arrive just a day before the 20-year-anniversary of the most politically-charged match in finals’ history.
Iran and the United States have had a complicated and often hostile relationship for the better part of the past 40 years, so when the two countries were placed in the same group for the 1998 World Cup, political overtones immediately surrounded the match.
“We’re not going to let politics play a part in this,” then-U.S. coach Steve Sampson said in the lead-up to the match. “We want to show that what we want coming out of this match besides a positive result was that the two countries are able to compete, meet each other on the field, compete effectively, and afterwards exchange jerseys as a sign that this is hopefully a start of what can be a new relationship between the countries of the United States and Iran.”
The build-up to the match coincided with a thawing of relations between the two nations, which had been adversaries since the fall of the U.S-backed Shah of Iran following the Islamic Revolution in the country in 1979.
That, coupled with a hostage crisis that saw 52 American diplomats kept captive in the Tehran-based U.S. embassy for 444 days, led to a complete ceasing of all diplomatic relations between the countries.
The two nations find themselves in that same position today, but there was a brief period of improved relations that coincided with their World Cup meeting. That historical backdrop made the 1998 World Cup match in Lyon, France a politically-charged event, one that even drew threats of protests and required a larger-than-normal police presence.
Despite the distractions, and the history between the countries, players from the two teams joined together to take a group photo before the match, a moment that made a big impression in both countries and around the world.
“We talked about taking the picture together, and we asked everybody how they all felt and all the players were all for it,” then-U.S. midfielder Tab Ramos told Goal. “We all thought that this was sports, and whatever happens in politics that’s obviously off the field. We want to make people happy and make people cheer, so we took the picture together.”
The United States wound up losing to Iran on the way to an awful showing at the 1998 World Cup. Three losses in three matches doomed the Americans to a last-place finish in Group F, with Germany and Yugoslavia proceeding to the last 16. This led to the departure of Sampson, who was eventually replaced by Bruce Arena — though, coincidentally, another candidate in the running for the job then was current Iran coach Carlos Quieroz.
“We were a little bit afraid of their counter,” Ramos recalled of the match, which finished with the Iranians winning 2-1. “That was a good Iran team. We had the ball more, but I think on the counter they were really dangerous and eventually they got us. If anything, we were dominating the game but unfortunately they caught us and sometimes that’s just the way it goes.”
The result was a historic one for Iran, marking its first World Cup victory, a feat the Iranians didn’t match until they defeated Morocco, 1-0, in their 2018 World Cup opener. The 1998 victory led to celebrations in the streets of Iran, not only for the first World Cup win in the nation’s history, but because it came against a country long seen as an enemy of Iran.
As bad as the 1998 World Cup was for the United States, one of the few bright spots was the sportsmanship shown in the match against Iran, a display that eventually helped lead to the two countries playing each other in a friendly in the United States in 2000.
“Maybe we did have a little effect on the political climate getting better,” said Ramos, who is in Russia at the World Cup working as an analyst for Telemundo. “When you’re a player that’s not really what you do, but if you can help people understand each other and come together it feels good to do that.”
Not only did the nations play each other in a friendly, two members of the 1998 Iran team that defeated the Americans wound up playing in the United States in Major League Soccer. Iranian forward Khodadad Azizi spent the 2000 season with the San Jose Earthquakes, while defender Mohammad Khakpour played with the New York/New Jersey MetroStars in 1999, where he was teammates with Ramos.
“(Khakpour) was the nicest guy, and one of the few foreign players who I visited his house for dinner, and he came to my home for dinner,” Ramos told Goal. “We develped a really close relationship and I think it started that day in 1998.”