Politics in football: USA vs Iran in '98

Few group games at a FIFA World Cup in recent memory can have carried as much political significance as the one held at Lyon’s Stade de Gerland on 21 June 1998, when Hamid Reza Estili made himself a national hero.

It was a match that caught the attention of football fans and those without an interest in the sport alike. But despite the tensions, both football teams did their country proud as they played out the match in a determined but fair fashion.

So fair in fact that FIFA awarded both teams a fair play award afterwards – a medal that now takes pride of place alongside Iranian hero Hamid Reza Estili’s jersey from the game in our 1998 showcase.

There can be few more fitting reminders of a game that had the potential to erupt, yet is remembered as one of the greatest displays of sporting professionalism seen on the world stage.

From the moment Iran and the United States were drawn to face one another in the group stage of the FIFA World Cup finals in France in 1998, the posturing between countries – whose recent histories had been so entwined for decades – reached unprecedented levels.

Fans, pundits, the media, even government officials weighed in on the debate over who would emerge victorious. The President of the US Soccer Federation called it “the mother of all games” and, years later, Four Four Two magazine called it the “most politically charged game in World Cup history”. It was a game that resonated far beyond the countries involved and, for many people, it meant more than a place in the round of 16.

With both nations losing their opening games – the Americans succumbing to a 2-0 defeat against Germany while the Iranians slipped up against Yugoslavia – the stakes were raised even higher.

Not only was this a battle for national pride between ideological opponents, but both sets of players were desperate to claim the three points that would give them a chance of advancing to the knockout phase.

With FIFA designating 21 June as Fair Play Day, the mood between the teams was convivial. Iranian captain Ahmedreza Abedzadeh presented US captain Thomas Dooley with a huge bouquet of flowers and the teams joined together for a group photograph in a show of solidarity.

But when Swiss referee Urs Meier blew his whistle to start the game, the tension was cranked up once more. Both teams battled for superiority, but it was Iran who gained the upper hand five minutes from half-time.

Javad Zarincheh’s cross from the right wing found Estili arriving late and unmarked into the penalty area and his looping header from 12 yards out arced beyond Kasey Keller’s outstretched hand and into the back of the net.

The emotion burst from Estili as he raced away in celebration, arms outstretched and his face contorted in elation at having given Iran the lead for the first time ever in a FIFA World Cup match.

“In the midfield, (Karim) Bagheri had more freedom to join the forwards than I did,” Estili told Football Asia, the Asian Football Confederation’s official magazine, in January 2000.

“At that moment I saw that Bagheri was still in our half. When Mehdi Mahdavikia and Javad Zarincheh were on the right flank I saw a place between (Khodadad) Azizi and (Ali) Daei. I ran into the box and headed the ball and it went in.

“I just couldn’t believe it when the game was finished, everyone was crying. We had beaten the USA.”

Estili’s spectacular opener was followed by a second goal for Iran when Mahdavikia slotted home six minutes from time. After sprinting nearly 50 yards to run on to Daei’s through ball, Mahdavikia hit the ball into Keller’s far corner, confining Brian McBride’s 87th-minute goal to little more than a consolation for the United States.

“People from five to even 95 admire me for that goal,” said Estili, several years after scoring the famous goal.

“Many Iranians who are living abroad now proudly confess that they’re Iranian. That victory unified all Iranians.”