Football has remained the most popular sport in the world for quite some time now. As 22 players face off against each other chasing a ball in the field - looking to score a goal or defend one, there is passion, skill, and history in it; as times changed, politics – nonchalantly and passively made a place somewhere there.
The Iran vs United States (US) match during FIFA World Cup 1998 is the epitome of the affairs of the state making itself an element of the game being played on the field.
On 21 June 1998, Iran and the US met each other in the group stage of the FIFA World Cup at the Stade de Gerland in Lyon, France. The match is described as the "mother of all games" and the "most politically charged game in World Cup history."
It was the first time that the two teams met each other – with a history of hostility between the two countries that was two-decade old by that point.
US media described it as personalised conflict, grounded in deeply different cultural values.
If anything, it was the real-life football version of the fictional USSR vs USA boxing match between Rocky Balboa and Ivan Drago in the famous 1985 film Rocky IV.
"The meaning of FIFA is peace and unity. I am not going into the political situation. We will just be thinking about football," said the then Football Federation Islamic Republic of Iran President Dariush Mostafavi.
"We know their interest in football is not so serious. We are friends with the people of the United States. The main thing is fair play. It would be no different playing football," he added.
The US had been participating in the World Cup since its inaugural Cup in 1930. Iran made its first appearance in 1978. But Mostafavi said he thought his team was superior to the US.
Hank Steinbrecher was the executive director of the US Soccer Federation at that time, and deemed the chance pairing as "the mother of all games."
"This will be a very emotional game from Iran's perspective, I imagine," Steinbrecher said.
Uncle Sam and Persians aren't fond of each other
Relations between Iran and US have been hostile since the late 70s: The overthrow of the pro-Western Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, due to the Iranian revolution; the attack on the American embassy in Iran, and the American support for Iraq during the Iran-Iraq being the main reasons.
Since 7 April, 1980, Iran and the US have had no formal diplomatic relations. While Pakistan serves as Iran's protecting power in the US, Switzerland serves as the US's protecting power in Iran.
The US has had an embargo on trade with Iran since 1995.
A game of diplomacy before a game of football
FIFA regulation classifies teams in each match as team A and team B. Team B typically walks toward team A for the pre-match handshakes. In the 1998 match, Iran was team B and the US was team A.
A 2014 article in the UK-based football magazine, FourFourTwo, featuring the match, states that Iran's then supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, "gave express orders that the Iranian team must not walk towards the Americans".
One of the FIFA media officers during the 1998 match was Iranian-born Mehrdad Masoudi. He negotiated with the US team, and they agreed to walk toward the Iranians for the handshake.
The Iranian players gifted white roses to the US footballers as a symbol of peace during a delicately choreographed pregame ceremony. The two sides had a joint team photo taken and then the whistle blew for the start of the most politically charged match in the history of the World Cup.
"The president of the Iranian Federation wanted to use the match to show his country in the best possible light. He asked the kit man to buy a bunch of flowers for every player to take onto the pitch. They were white roses, a symbol of peace in Iran," says Masoudi.
Geopolitics trying to goal
Mujahedin Khalq, an Iraq-based group funded by Saddam Hussein, opposed the Islamic Republic of Iran. The militant-political group's main aim was to destabilise the Iranian regime; it had bought 7,000 tickets for the game and were planning to stage a protest during the match.
Containing such a large amount of fans amongst the 42,000 crowd that gathered for the game posed a difficult challenge for the organisers.
"From the intelligence, we had received we knew who the main troublemakers would be. We issued the TV cameramen with photos so they knew which people and which banners to avoid. The match was being beamed around the world and the last thing we wanted was for this group to sabotage the occasion and use it for their own political purpose," Masoudi said.
Some smuggled in portions of banners and pieced them together with velcro, but the TV cameras managed to avoid them. Intelligence sources even said there might be a pitch invasion.
Checkmate in football, but the game is again on
The game was a competitive but fair contest. Iran took the lead 5 minutes before half-time with a goal from Hamid Estili. Mehdi Mahdavikia scored another goal at 84 minutes Brian McBride scored the only goal from his team. The match ended with a 2–1 victory for Iran. It was Iran's first-ever victory in the history of the FIFA World Cup.
The US got eliminated from the tournament after getting defeated by Iran. But neither team qualified for the knockout stage. Of the four teams in Group F, Iran finished third and the United States finished fourth.
"We did more in 90 minutes than the politicians did in 20 years," said US defender Jeff Agoos at the time after the game.
Mehrdad Masoudi said that after the historical victory of Iran in the game, "people were dancing in the streets of Tehran."
The two teams played a friendly match more than a year later in Pasadena, US - home to the largest population of Iranian Americans outside Iran. The game finished in a 1–1 draw.
Iran and the US are scheduled to face off again at a match scheduled for 30 November in the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar. Both are in Group B, and the bitterness between the countries hasn't faded,