Iran’s mind won’t be on Great Satan

Iran’s Hamid Estili was immortalised after scoring the winning goal against the US in the 1998 World Cup. (Ben  Radford/Allsport)

Iran’s Hamid Estili was immortalised after scoring the winning goal against the US in the 1998 World Cup. (Ben Radford/Allsport)

Esteemed football magazine FourFourTwo describes the 1998 match between Iran and the United States as the most politically charged game in World Cup history.

Relations between the two nations had grown ever frostier after the Iranian revolution in 1979 and the tensions dominated much of the focus before the game. After it, however, US defender Jeff Agoos would famously claim: “We did more in 90 minutes than the politicians did in 20 years.”

The legend of the game grew from there, with the Iranian government in particular playing up the significance of their side getting the better of their bitter real-world rivals. Some of its citizens, though, remember things a little differently.

“To me, it was not that important or different of a game. It was something normal,” says Morteza (63), who is from Tehran. “There was some political exaggeration from the government side and that was because of being pessimistic towards the United States, otherwise for people it was not that important politically. The government wanted to make a big deal of the fact that it had achieved victory over the US.”

Although most football fans cared little for the political arm-wrestling, there was no denying the significance of the 2-1 win in the context of the tournament. The US were considered the superior side, with an outside chance of qualifying from a tough group H that included Germany and Yugoslavia. Defeat in the match condemned them to elimination and handed Iran a slim chance of going to the next round.

But as Iran’s first World Cup win it triggered elation. By all accounts, Iranians flocked into the streets that day, openly flaunting alcohol as the party went on until the next morning. The police, caught up in the festivity themselves, were happy to ignore the drinking and other transgressions, such as dropped headscarves, for a day.

For Effat (60), recalling the festivities and the resulting disorder conjures up painful memories.

“I remember that game and celebration, because it was a bad night for me,” she says. “It was midnight that my mother got sick and the ambulance wanted to take her to the hospital but there was no way to get rid of the traffic jam. Because of that victory, people took to the street and there was no way to escape. I believe the game finished at 9pm but it was midnight and people were still celebrating on the street.”

Effat’s mother died few days later.

The day holds better memories for Hamid Estili, the player who delivered a looping header from beyond the penalty spot and into the far corner. He was immortalised in Iranian sporting culture for scoring the first, crucial goal of that game, for which he wheeled away in tearful celebration. He went on to coach in the domestic league.

“Among the players of that day, the game was a good luck for Estili, because he was not known outside Iran,” Morteza says.

There’s no chance of a rematch this year after the US failed to qualify for the finals for the first time since 1986. It’s unfortunate for the drama-seekers among us; tensions between the two nations have worsened. Football will be given no chance to cure anything this time around.

In reality, Iran probably has one goal for their trip to Russia: achieve their second World Cup win. They won’t care if it’s not as historic as the first.

Luke Feltham

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