The last World Cup clash between the United States and Iran 24 years ago is considered one of the most politically charged matches in soccer history. Tuesday night’s match in Qatar likely eclipsed it.
The Americans prevailed 1-0 on the pitch, where no one mentioned Iran’s nationwide protests, its expanding nuclear program and regional and international attacks linked back to Tehran. But those factors pushed the match beyond the stadium and into geopolitics.
Even some protesters at Al Thumama Stadium said they felt threatened by pro-government officials on hand.
“The government of Iran does not look at it as just a football game but a political platform to show the world, ‘Look, we are just normal people having fun, nothing is going on,’” said Farshid, a 47-year-old Iranian from London on hand for the match who gave only his first name for fear of reprisals. “But now thousands of people are in the streets of Iran.”
Determining when relations soured between the U.S. and Iran depends on who you ask. Iranians point to the 1953 CIA-backed coup that cemented Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi’s power. Americans remember the 1979 takeover of the U.S. Embassy followed by a 444-day hostage crisis during the Iranian Revolution.
In soccer, however, the timeline is much simpler. This was only the second time Iran and the U.S. have played each other in the World Cup.
The last time was at the 1998 tournament in France — a totally different time in the Islamic Republic. Iran won 2-1 in Lyon, a low point for the U.S. men’s team as Iranians celebrated in Tehran.
At the time, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei praised the Iranian team, saying “the strong and arrogant opponent felt the bitter taste of defeat.”
But off the pitch, Iran’s then-president, Mohammad Khatami, sought to improve ties to the West and the wider world. Inside Iran, Khatami pushed so-called reformist policies, seeking to liberalize aspects of its theocracy while maintaining its structure with a supreme leader at the top.
U.S. President Bill Clinton and his administration hoped Khatami’s election could be part of a thaw in relations.
The two teams posed for a joint photograph in 1998, and the Iranian players handed white flowers to their American opponents. The U.S. gave the Iranians U.S. Soccer Federation pennants. They even exchanged jerseys, though the Iranians didn’t put them on. They later played a friendly exhibition match in Pasadena, California, as well.