The 1998 FIFA World Cup encounter between Iran and the US was not just a football match. Called the “most politically charged game in World Cup history”, the two teams took on each other on the global stage at a time when the relations between the two countries were at the sword’s edge.
Since the Iranian Revolution that overthrew the US-backed Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the two countries had been at loggerheads. It got compounded by US support for Iraq during the Iraq-Iran Gulf War. As a result, when the two teams met, security and diplomatic issues to the stage decentering football.
Prior to the match, the president of the US Soccer Federation, had hyped up the players saying that it was ‘the mother of all games’ in which a win would be politically significant.
Iran’s then-supreme leader, Sayyid Ali Khamenei, gave explicit orders to the players that they will not walk towards the US team for handshakes. For every match in the World Cup, FIFA rules say that team B is supposed to walk to team A for handshakes. But in the match in Paris, Iran were team B, and given Khamenei’s order, FIFA was at a crossroads about what to do.
“One of the first problems was that Iran were team B and the USA were team A,” Mehrdad Masoudi, an expatriate-Iranian, who was FIFA’s media officer for the match told Guardian in an interview.
“According to FIFA regulations team B should walk towards team A for the pre-match handshakes, but Iran’s Supreme Leader Khamenei gave express orders that the Iranian team must not walk towards the Americans.”
Eventually, the onus rested on Masoudi to get the US team to do the walk and he was able to convince them to do it. On the other hand, the Iran football federation president instructed the team to carry white roses to the field to greet the US players.
“The president of the Iranian Federation wanted to use the match to show his country in the best possible light,” Masoudi said. “He asked the kit man to buy a bunch of flowers for every player to take onto the pitch. They were white roses, a symbol of peace in Iran.”
The match ended in a 2-1 victory for Iran, their first-ever in the FIFA World Cup. The match became one of the historic moments in Iranian football that will never be forgotten by football lovers.