The Intense Politically Charged History Of The 1998 U.S./Iran World Cup  

Sean Kelly
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The 1998 World Cup in Lyon, France, was highlighted by what was anticipated to be one of the most intense showdowns in the game's history - the United States facing off against Iran. For nearly two decades, political tensions between the countries had boiled due to the ousting of the pro-U.S. Shah in 1979 and a hostage situation which saw 52 Americans detain in the country for over a year..

When the game was finally underway, the world watched as two political rivals faced off against one another on the pitch in an historic event that became a major part of World Cup history. 

Tensions Began In The Late 70s
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By the time the U.S. and Iran World Cup teams played each other in 1998, the two countries already had decades of dark political history between them. In 1979, the Ayatollah Khomeini had just taken power after ousting the American-friendly Shah, and an intense situation quickly unfolded. When then-president Jimmy Carter allowed the Shah to come to America for cancer treatment, outraged Iranians stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and took 52 Americans hostage.

Carter authorized a military rescue which failed, resulting in the deaths of eight servicemen, after a sandstorm caused a helicopter to crash. The hostages were finally released after President Ronald Reagan was sworn in. Some hostages reportedly endured torture and even a mock execution during the crisis, though Iran maintained that they weren't treated poorly at all.

A Handshake Nearly Derailed The Entire Game
A Handshake Nearly Derailed Th... is listed (or ranked) 2 on the list The Intense Politically Charged History Of The 1998 U.S./Iran World Cup
Photo: Matthew Ashton/EMPICS/Getty Images

Due to the uncertainty of the countries going face-to-face on the pitch in France, the game was billed by the president of the U.S. Soccer Federation as the "mother of all games." That billing caused plenty of buzz, which led to security difficulties.

"One of the first problems was that Iran were team B and the USA were team A," FIFA medical officer Mehrdad Masoudi recalled. "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."

The situation was resolved when the U.S. team agreed to walk towards the Iranian team at the same time.

Players From Both Countries Posed For A Group Photo
Players From Both Countries Po... is listed (or ranked) 3 on the list The Intense Politically Charged History Of The 1998 U.S./Iran World Cup

In an attempt to show unity and keep the peace, it was arranged for the players to take a group photo prior to the start of the game. Both FIFA and the Iranian Football Federation used the photo op to show publicly that there wasn't any tension on the pitch or in Lyon, for that matter.

In reality, there was quite a bit of hostility on the part of spectators despite the players getting along. 

French Television Aired A Controversial Movie About Iran, Angering Their Soccer Federation
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At the time of the World Cup, Iranians in France were outraged when French television aired a movie called Not Without My Daughter, which starred Sally Field as an American woman who escapes Iran with her daughter despite opposition from her Iranian husband. Some viewed it as deliberate slight against Iran and objected to the showing. 

"It is not the right thing to show this untrue thing about Iranian culture," Jalal Talebi, a coach for Iran's soccer team, said. "In the World Cup, everyone speaks of unity and love and togetherness, and somebody shows this film. Nobody can benefit, except to make everybody unhappy in our camp."