Since the 1979 revolution in Iran, the two countries had no diplomatic relations and relations had been (and continue to be) quite tense. In that regard, it raised some eyebrows then the two countries drew each other in the first round, together with Yugoslavia and Germany. Undoubtedly, Germany and Yugoslavia were considered the favourites in a group where Iran and USA were nothing but footballing dwarfs. Still, the match drew a lot of attention, in particular in the football-crazed Iran, where a victory against the USA apparently meant more than even progressing to the next round.
In the USA, football (or soccer) remained a small sport, although it was growing after the successful 1994 World Cup. A Major Soccer League had been started in the country, and many of its players were getting experience playing in Europe. Although still a minor player in footballing terms, there was no doubt that it was a growing power. In spite of this, the team had before the tournament and been full of internal intrigues that was truly affecting the team on the pitch.
The team had started the tournament by losing 2-0 to a strong German side.
Football in Iran is immensely popular, and in the 1970s Iran dominated the Asian championships and in 1978 also qualified for their first World Cup. However, the political turmoil and war with Iraq also influenced the national football side, that throughout the 1980s was absent from international football (they did not even play qualifiers for the 1982 and 1986 World Cups). But in the 1990s Iranian football began to recover, something that culminated in 1997: in a close 2-game play-off against Australia, Iran qualified for the World Cup in France, and the country celebrated wildly.
Iran’s team was without doubt very talented. The star was Arminia Bielefeld’s Ali Daei, who was soon to join Bayern Munich, and is still the player that has scored most goals on international matches ever (109 goals, ahead of Ferenc Puskas and Pelé). But there was also the charismatic and strong midfielder Karim Bagheri, also from Arminia Bielefeld, the FC Cologne striker Khodad Azizi, and the young super talent from Bochum, Mehdi Mahdavikia.
Iran had started the tournament with a narrow 1-0 loss to Yugoslavia. Therefore the second match where the USA and Iran faced one another was crucial: the loser would be definitely out of the tournament even before the last match. However, this circumstance was largely overshadowed by the media attention around the political situation between the two countries.
Before the match, both teams showed some of the greatest sportsmanship, exemplifying to both their hostile governments that football is not politics. The team’s players presented each other with flowers and gifts, and the team picture was taken together.
Nonetheless, in sporting terms, both teams needed a victory, and both started out carefully, seeing off each other, with sporadic chances and fighting strongly. In particular the Iranians were motivated by the largely Iranian crowd cheering them on, and they increasingly dominated the match. Only five minutes from halftime, a cross from Javad Zarincheh into the US area was beautifully headed into goal by a completely unmarked Hamid Esteli, from the Iranian club Bahman F.C. Esteli’s euphoric celebration was reminiscent of Tardelli’s when he scored in the 1982 World Cup final.
In the second half the North Americans had to put more pressure to get an equalizer as the match grew in intensity. The Iranians fought hard, stood well in defence, and were increasingly dangerous on their counter-attacks with their quick strikers. It was in one of these counter-attacks that Iran went ahead 2-0: Ali Daei elegantly got between three US players and made a deep pass to Mahdavikia. The US defence was completely torn apart and Mahdavikia had the option to pass to a team-mate who was alone in the centre, but instead he rushed straight towards the North American goal and shot hard in the low corner.
The last eight minutes of the match were perhaps much more dramatic that they should have been. Instinctively the Iranians pulled back to defend, while the US pushed all forward. Soon after the Iranian goal, the first warning came when the French-American defender David Regis hit the post in an open position. And only three minutes before time the Columbus Crew striker, Brian McBride scored on a diving header. At the score 2-1 the Iranians were very nervous, and the Americans had some good chances. But the score held to the end of the match.
The victory was very important for Iran, as it also represented their first World Cup victory ever. But after losing their final match 2-0 to Germany, they were out of the tournament. The US also lost 1-0 to Yugoslavia in their last match, and thus exited the tournament with three loses as the worse team together with Japan.
This match was the most important ever between footballing midgets.
The US has continued with huge advances in football, qualifying for every world cup since, and even making it to the quarter-finals in 2002.
Iran participated in the 2006 World Cup, but lost to Mexico and Portugal and tied Angola.
- 21st June 1998, Estade Gerland, Lyon
- Attendance: 39,100
- Referee: Urs Meier (Switzerland)
Goals: 0-1 Estili (40), 0-2 Mahdavikia (84), 1-2 McBride (87)
USA: Keller; Hejduk, Pope, Dooley (Maisonneuve), Regis, Wegerle (Radosavljevic), Moore, Ramos (Stewart), Jones, McBride, Reyna
Iran: Abedzadeh; Mahdavikia, Khakpour, Bagheri, Estili, Daei, Azizi (Mansourian), Mohammadkhani (Peyrovani), Zarincheh (Sadavi Sad), Pashazadeh, Minavand