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Asian Classics: IR Iran vs USA (1998 FIFA World Cup)

Kuala Lumpur: From the moment the draw for the 1998 FIFA World Cup Finals was made, the world waited with baited breath for the historic meeting between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the United States of America. looks back at a match that captured global attention and ended with a first-ever Iranian World Cup win.

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It was on a cold, miserable December evening in Marseille that the heat was cranked up six months before the FIFA World Cup when Iran and the USA were drawn together in Group F of the 1998 Finals.

It resulted in a run of sensational headlines in the lead up to what was to be a remarkable game at a packed out Stade Gerland in Lyon.

For an Iranian side that had secured a ticket for their country’s first appearance at the FIFA World Cup since 1978 just qualifying for the Finals was a momentous occasion, but Team Melli went to France in a state of uncertainty that bordered on turmoil.

Badu Vieira, the coach who had qualified them for France in dramatic fashion against Australia in Melbourne the previous November, was long gone, replaced initially by Tomislav Ivic.

Ivic had led Team Melli to overseas friendlies in Hong Kong and in Europe, only for the affable Croatian’s reign to come unstuck. During a fractious camp in Italy the former United Arab Emirates coach was removed after a 7-1 defeat in a closed doors game against AS Roma, with Jalal Talebi appointed in his place.

The former Geylang United coach was given only three weeks to fine tune his squad for the country’s first appearance at the FIFA World Cup finals in 20 years, but that did not dampen the hopes of the nation that a golden generation of talent could make a significant impact.

Less than two years earlier, Iranian fans had seen their team undergo a resurgence within the Asian game. A squad boasting Ali Daei, Karim Bagheri, Khodadad Azizi and Mehdi Mahdavikia had captured the imagination at the AFC Asian Cup Finals in 1996 before sealing their place in France. After thrilling and enthralling in equal measure, expectations were high.

Those dreams of success suffered a serious blow, however, in the opening game of their France 98 campaign against Yugoslavia. With first choice goalkeeper Ahmedreza Abedzadeh suspended for the match at Saint Etienne’s Stade Geoffroy-Guichard, understudy Nima Nakisa was drafted in as the Persepolis stalwart’s replacement.

It was to prove decisive. Nakisa was poorly positioned to deal with Sinisa Mihajlovic’s low free-kick 17 minutes from time, with the resulting goal scuppering hopes of the Iranians taking something from the opener to immediately heap pressure on Talebi and his team ahead of the June 21 showdown with the Americans.

Not that the game needed any further hyping. While the Iranians and the United States were ranked in the third and fourth group of seeds prior to the tournament, their relatively lowly status within the tournament was irrelevant once game time approached.

The eyes of the world were set squarely on Lyon and the two protagonists for a game the President of the United States Soccer Federation, Alan Rothenberg, had called “the mother of all games”. With both teams having lost their opening games – the United States had earlier lost to Germany - each needed the three points.

Any potential on-field issues between the players was quickly defused by FIFA, which designated June 21 Fair Play Day and had both starting lineups come together before kick-off for a group photograph, with the Iranian players handing bouquets to their American counterparts.

The crowd inside the Stade Gerland, however, was heavily and vociferously in favour of Talebi’s team, although they were made to endure several heart stopping moments throughout the opening exchanges as the US took the initiative.

Barely three minutes had gone by before Brian McBride rattled the Iranian woodwork, his powerful header thumping off the bar after Claudio Reyna’s outswinging free-kick. Moments later Cobi Jones was in on the action, bursting down the left only to see his cutback go across the face of goal.

With 12 minutes left in the half Reyna was unlucky not to open the scoring with a fine shot which hit the post. It was a miss the Americans were to rue as, seven minutes later, the Iranians went in front.

Javad Zarincheh’s clipped cross from the right found Hamid Reza Estili unmarked in the penalty area and the midfielder’s header looped over Kasey Keller and into the net, prompting Estili to race off in celebratory delight.

“Everyone reminds me of that goal,” said Estili several years later. “People from five to even 95 admire me for that goal. Many Iranians who are living abroad proudly confess that they’re Iranian. That victory unified all Iranians.

“In the midfield, Bagheri had more freedom to join the forwards than I did. At that moment I saw Bagheri was still in our half. When Mahdavikia and Zarincheh were on the right flank I saw a place between Azizi and Daei. I ran into the box and headed the ball and it went in.”

Once in front, the Iranians never looked like relinquishing the lead. In the 84th minute Team Melli doubled their advantage when Mahdavikia burst into the American half before smashing his low shot past Keller and into the bottom corner.

The US were given a sliver of hope three minutes from time when McBride’s downward header slipped through substitute Naim Sadavi’s legs and defender Mohammad Khakpour was unable to hack the ball clear before it crossed the line.

But it was too little too late for the Americans as Team Melli clinched a historic victory and the United States crashed out of the tournament with a game to play.

“It was amazing for us and amazing for the Iranian nation,” said Talebi after the game. “It was important we win, not because we were playing America but because Iran had never won a game in the World Cup before. It is just a shame that one team had to lose.

“In the changing rooms we were all crying,” said Mahdavikia. “All I can think about was what it must be like in Tehran with all the people in the streets. When I scored and I saw the ball going into the net I thought about my people.”

United States coach Steve Samson was magnanimous in defeat, praising both teams after a pulsating 90 minutes of action.

“This was a game played between two attack-minded teams who wanted to win,” he said. “The score was 2-1 but it could easily have been 4-3. We hit the woodwork, they created a lot of chances. It was just an amazing game to be part of.

“If anybody who saw tonight’s game goes away not being very excited about soccer then maybe they should get into another sport. Because this was the game at its very best.”

The win in Lyon was not only historic, it meant the Iranians went into their final game of the group phase with hopes of advancing to the knockout rounds of the World Cup for the first time. There was only one issue: three-time champions Germany stood in their way, with a squad boasting the talents of Lothar Matthaus, Jurgen Klinsmann and Olivier Bierhoff.

With Daei, Bagheri and Azizi already playing in the Bundesliga and others, including Mahdavikia, being courted by German clubs, the meeting with the European giants was another game of mammoth proportions for the Iranians.

In the end a 2-0 defeat – following goals from Bierhoff and Klinsmann – knocked Talebi and his team out of the World Cup and it would be another eight years before the Iranians returned to the Finals, in Germany in 2006.

Before then, however, there was to be another meeting with the United States and this time on American soil. On January 16, 2000, a little more than 18 months after the clash in Lyon, the two countries met at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, playing out a 1-1 draw in front of more than 50,000 fans.

Mahdavikia was on the scoresheet that day, too, while the game also led to Azizi joining Major League Soccer side San Jose Earthquakes.

Little, though, can compare with the thrill of that night in Lyon for Team Melli and their fans, who had to wait another 20 years before seeing the team win at the FIFA World Cup again when, in Russia two years ago, they handed Morocco a 1-0 defeat.

Photos: AFP

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