AFC - The FIFA World Cup France 1998 is remembered for many things: Zinedine Zidane cementing his place amongst the all-time greats, Ronaldo’s pre-final meltdown and David Beckham’s dismissal against Argentina that was followed by scathing criticism in his homeland.
Yet 19 years ago to this day, on June 21 1998, the Islamic Republic of Iran went head-to-head with the USA for the first time ever in a match that carried arguably as much significance as any during the four-week competition.
Having first appeared at the FIFA World Cup in 1978 in Argentina, Iran would have to wait a further 20 years to progress to the tournament again – and they did so the hard way.
After coming second to Saudi Arabia in their qualifying group, the Iranians then lost 3-2 after extra-time to Japan in the continental play-off to leave them facing a two-legged encounter with Australia for the right to advance to the competition.
A World Cup return
A 1-1 draw in the first leg at Azadi Stadium in front of well over 100,000 spectators was then followed by a 2-2 scoreline in Melbourne as Iran secured their place on away goals.
Iran 1 Australia 1
The USA were appearing in their third successive World Cup - having hosted the tournament four years earlier - but it was the first time the two nations had been represented at the same competition.
And as fate would have it, a match billed as the most politically charged in World Cup history and described as “the mother of all games” by the US Soccer Federation would take place in Lyon as Iran were paired with the USA in Group F alongside powerhouses Germany and Yugoslavia.
The build up
Fresh from reaching the last 16 on home soil at the 1994 edition of the tournament, and with a number of players now plying their trade in Europe, the USA had seen their reputation grow in recent years.
The trio of Ali Daei, Karim Bagheri and Khodadad Azizi, meanwhile, all played their club football in Germany, but elsewhere the Iranians remained somewhat of an unknown quantity.
Team Melli kicked off their World Cup just over 20 years to the day since their last fixture in the competition but, after running a star-studded Yugoslavia side close, lost 1-0 in their opening game in Saint-Etienne.
The USA would begin their campaign with a 2-0 defeat to Germany in Paris to mean both teams went into the clash in Lyon needing a win in order to maintain their hopes of reaching the knockout phase.
Just under 40,000 turned out for the crunch encounter at Stade de Gerland to witness Hamid Estili give the Iranians the lead five minutes before the interval with a superb header from 15 metres after being picked out by Javad Zarincheh from the right.
Then, with 10 minutes to play, Iran’s all-time leading scorer Daei slotted through to a surging Mehdi Mahdavikia, who kept his cool to toe-poke past Kasey Keller in the American goal and spark joyous celebrations among Iranian players and fans.
Brian McBride pulled a goal back with three minutes to play to ensure a nervy finish but Iran managed to hold on to wrap up their first and to date only World Cup win and, in turn, eliminate the USA after just two games.
What happened next
With Germany and Yugoslavia drawing 2-2 in their second match of the competition, Iran went into their final fixture with the Germans knowing only a win would guarantee progression to the next round.
It was a tough ask but Jalal Talebi’s team performed admirably in the first half in Montpellier by keeping their more illustrious opponents at bay to go in level at the interval. Germany’s superiority shone through after the restart, though, as Oliver Bierhoff opened the scoring on 50 minutes before Jurgen Klinsmann made it two soon after.
Iran’s exit was confirmed following the 2-0 defeat, but Team Melli returned home with their heads held high having secured their finest result on the global stage.
Although there were legitimate concerns about a game between countries who’d endured a fraught political relationship over the previous two decades, the match was said to have done far more good than bad.
The Iranian players took white roses – a symbol of peace in their homeland – on to the pitch to present to their opponents, before the two teams then posed for photographs prior to kick-off.
In January 2000, Iran would travel to play the USA in a friendly at Los Angeles’ Pasadena Rose Bowl in a match that ended 1-1 and which is widely believed would not have taken place had the teams not been paired together in France 18 months earlier.
Having now secured their progression to the FIFA World Cup Russia 2018 with a highly regarded team, the next aim for modern-day Iran will be to add to that famous first win and create a new chapter of history for Team Melli.
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