Great Satan 1-2 Iran: the most politically charged match in World Cup history

There was a small rubber ball, dusty streets and not much else. This was Jalal Talebi’s childhood growing up in Tehran in the 1950s.

Every day, he would race to the narrow alleyways and play football. His wish was to emulate his older brother, who was captain of the Iranian water-polo team. He wanted to represent his country too and play in front of big crowds. But he also dreamt of reaching a World Cup.

“The first tournament I watched was 1966,” Talebi tells the Guardian.

“Bobby Charlton was my favorite player because he played the same position as me. I learned so many tricks from him. I still love him – as a player, a sportsman, a gentleman”.

Talebi did become a senior Iranian international and an Olympian too, but a knee injury ended his playing career at the age of 27. He turned to coaching and even spent a season with Dave Sexton’s Chelsea to learn more. By the mid-1970s, he was a well-respected young manager at Daraei, the Iranian club where he’d started his career, and his reputation was on the rise.

Then, the revolution came and everything changed.

“After it happened, football started to struggle,” Talebi says.

“There was no money so I left to go and work in the United Arab Emirates and took my family with me. My friends told me about the opportunities for my children to study in a place like the United States. It was a big country and a place I had heard and read about. People over there had a good life, mostly. It was a place where you could find work. And that’s what happened. It started as one year, then it became two and now it’s almost 40 years that we’ve been there.”

The family relocated to the San Francisco Bay area and Talebi set up a vegetarian restaurant with his wife, Sira, in Palo Alto while also coaching in some local colleges. But it wasn’t an easy transition. American-Iranian relations were at an all-time low.

In 1979, the revolution resulted in US-backed Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlevi fleeing Iran and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini becoming leader of the new republic. He later denounced America, referring to it as ‘the great Satan’, and anti-US sentiment grew. In November of that year, a group of young Iranian militants stormed the US embassy in Tehran and took over 60 American citizens hostage. The ordeal lasted for 444 days and the US subsequently severed diplomatic ties. Then, in 1980, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein – supported by the US – instigated an invasion of Iran and the subsequent war lasted for eight years.

For Talebi, it seemed a perfect paradox: the proud Iranian trying to assimilate to an American way of life. But he wasn’t the only one. Following the revolution, tens of thousands of Iranians also headed for California and did likewise.

“You don’t know the culture or the customs and you don’t know what you’re going to do,” he says.

“You have to start a new life in a new place with new people and a new language. It was very difficult. But there was a war in Iran and it was no place for my children to come back to and study in. I thought it was better to give them that chance in the US. But it was hard to be away from your country, your home.”

Talebi built a steady west-coast life with his family but in the late-1990s, his country came calling in remarkable circumstances.

Iran qualified for the 1998 World Cup after a play-off win over Australia. But, manager Valdeir Vieira was sacked shortly after. His replacement, Tomislav Ivic, was then ousted less than a month before the tournament opener and Talebi, who had been appointed as technical advisor to the team just weeks before, was parachuted in.

His presence in France supplied a neat plot twist to what was an already captivating drama. Iran had been drawn in Group F, alongside Germany, Yugoslavia and the United States.

Inevitably, football took a back-seat and the build-up to the US game focused intently on the political subtext. Some players refused to stay silent.

“We will not lose,” Iranian striker Khodadad Azizi said.

“Many families of martyrs are expecting us to win,” he continued, referring to the estimated 500,000 Iranians who had died or been injured in the Iran-Iraq war.

“We will win for their sake.”

In the American camp, the atmosphere was a little different.

“I think that’s more important to them than us,” midfielder Tab Ramos said, referencing the political and historical significance of the game.

“I haven’t heard anyone say, ‘Let’s beat Iran, let’s do it for Bill Clinton.’’’

Talebi and his counterpart Steve Sampson tried, however redundantly, to stick to discussing team news and tactics with a relentless media.

“I could have spoken about the politics but it wasn’t the right time,” Talebi says.

“It was the World Cup. It wasn’t the right place.”

Sampson, meanwhile, was specifically instructed to be careful with his words.

“Fifa and the US soccer federation asked me not to politicize the game,” he says.

“They didn’t want me to instill violence and have it become more than what it was. But sport and politics are completely intertwined. The fact we had American citizens held captive by the Iranian government for an extended period of time … I’m old enough to have lived through that and to have understood it. Most of the players were too young to properly appreciate the significance of that happening.

“We didn’t politicize the game but Iran did and to the ultimate extreme. I think the government of Iran made it a political match. If I was to do it all over again, I would’ve brought up the history between the two countries with the players and used it as a motivational tool to get a result. But I chose not to at the time.”

Talebi remained calm and composed. His story – an Iranian immigrant to the US attempting to beat the country that gave him a new life – made for good copy. But he didn’t find his personal situation as complex or as riveting as others made out.

“It wasn’t hard for me,” he says.

“I was happy to help my country but I was happy in the US too. It was a place that provided me with opportunities. It wasn’t like I wanted to do something bad to the country that gave me and my family the chance to have a good future.”

Organizers attempted to downplay any potential threats but the atmosphere surrounding the fixture remained tense. Even before arriving at the tournament, the US squad and their families were assigned security detail. In France, there were plain-clothes police officers at the team’s training sessions and their hotel.

“We were just coming off a 2-0 loss to Germany and had to win against Iran to stay in the hunt. So, it was very distracting,” Sampson says.

“But, I don’t think we played distracted. I don’t think our players cared about the politics or the security. All they wanted was to win the match.”

During a delicately-choreographed pregame ceremony at Lyon’s Stade Gerland, the Iranian players gifted white roses to their opponents as a symbol of peace and both teams posed for a photo together. For some, the notion that a football game could somehow cure decades of animosity was flippant, presumptive and downright arrogant.

But others felt differently.

“I’ll remember that photo for the rest of my life,” Talebi says.

“We are all people. We are not enemies. We can play together, respect each other, shake hands, exchange congratulations and move on to the next game. We did our best to show everyone that we have our own proud history and that we weren’t there to fight. We were there to play sport”.

Thanks to goals from Hamid Estili and Mehdi Mahdavikia, Iran secured their first ever World Cup victory that night. The result also ensured the US were eliminated. In Tehran, celebrations were inevitably wild as thousands took to the streets. Just outside San Francisco, Talebi’s three sons hugged and kissed as the full-time whistle blew. His wife – too nervous to watch the game – finally walked to the living room, glanced at the images on her television and began to weep.

“It’s 20 years past but I still don’t know how to express the feelings I had in that moment on that day,” Talebi says.

“I can’t explain it. It’s still in my mind and my heart. But not because it was the US. It was the first World Cup victory at a time when Iranian people were waiting to be happy. And it made people happy. People in my country have never forgotten that night and how they danced in the streets until early morning.”

The game did succeed in bringing both countries closer and eighteen months later, they met again in a friendly in Pasadena.

“We did more in 90 minutes than the politicians did in 20 years,” former US defender Jeff Agoos remarked at the time.

But, things have been far from straightforward since.

Tension and suspicion returned following President George Bush’s ‘axis of evil’ comments in 2002. And despite an historic and progressive nuclear deal being co-signed in 2015 by Iran, the US and five other countries (which was greeted by more jubilant scenes on the streets of Tehran), Donald Trump announced in May that he was withdrawing the United States from the agreement and reimposing previously-suspended economic sanctions on Iran.

“If there’s any difference between two countries, they should sit in front of each other and talk and solve the problem,” Talebi says.

“The people need to be heard because it’s the people who suffer. They have to pay more than anybody. I wish and hope that those responsible for the happiness of their country and their people will talk and solve their differences without punishing those who will be impacted the most.”

Talebi quit as Iranian manager in August 1998. He returned briefly two years later and also had a spell in charge of the Syrian national team. Now in his mid-70s, he still visits Tehran frequently to see family. He walks through the same narrow alleyways where he played as a young boy and dreamt of being at a World Cup. But it’s different now.

“The streets are still there,” he says, before taking a pause.

“But everything has changed.”


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