Steve Sampson, the USMNT at the 1998 World Cup: “I don’t know if it’s the most important match in humanity, but it is the most important match since the 1990 World Cup. We’ve been trying to leave the politics out of it. It is hard to ignore the fact there is so much emphasis being put on the game politically.” (www.AndyMead/YCJPhoto)

This story was published in Soccer New York in 1998 and is used with permission

By Michael Lewis

LYON, France – The first and only time the United States and Iran clashed in the World Cup came at France 98, which helped to give a new meaning to the term political football.

The match was played on two entirely different levels on and off the field.

On the pitch, the U.S. men’s national team faced a must-win situation after it lost its first game the Germany, 2-0.

On a worldwide scale, there was the eagerly anticipated confrontation because the “Great Satan” and the country that engineered the great hostage crisis that began in 1979.

The Iranians had promised a gesture of goodwill before the kickoff, although head coach Jalil Talebi wouldn’t reveal what it might have been. Before the team played Yugoslavia in its opener, each player gave his counterpart a rose.

The Americans considered a similar tactics. Players on both teams have said that they want to trade shirts after the Group F match, a traditional ritual of the sport.

(Editor’s note: There was some behind the scenes machinations going on between the two federations, which U.S. Soccer secretary general Hank Steinbrecher helped rectify. Both teams were scheduled to together to show unity, for one pregame photo instead of one of each team at Le Stade be Gerland).

FIFA decided that the match would be officiated by Urs Meier of Switzerland.

“It’s certainly no accident that a Swiss referee was chosen for this match,” FIFA president Sepp Blatter said at the time. “Switzerland is the only country that has excellent diplomatic relations with both countries.”

Security was tight in and around the stadium.

The National Council of Resistance of Iran reportedly was going to attempt to interrupt the game with political protests about its homeland. Banners with inscriptions of any nature, however, were forbidden and fans were subject to body searches, according to officials.

“We shall by paying very close attention to any attempts to take advantage of this match to develop or promote any political or ideological themes,” said Pierre Guinot-Delery, head of security and defense.

(Editor’s note: Several weeks prior to the match, police rounded up 88 Islamic militants in raids across Europe, according to the Associated Press in 1998. Police they had evidence of a terrorist campaign that was aimed at the World Cup. The U.S. men’s national team was not believed to be a target, although England was – at match in Marseille).

All week long, most of the questions volleyed at the U.S. team has been about the political ramifications, rather than on the game itself.

“I don’t know if it’s the most important match in humanity, but it is the most important match since the 1990 World Cup,” U.S. head coach Steve Sampson said. “We’ve been trying to leave the politics out of it. It is hard to ignore the fact there is so much emphasis being put on the game politically.”

Politically for Sampson, a win could go a long way in pointing the team in the right direction – by having a fighting chance to reach the knockout stage. If the U.S. managed to secure three points, it would have entered its final opening-round match with Yugoslavia likely needing a draw to advance. A tie would have forced the U.S. into a must, must-win situation, and loss, the worst-case scenario, would mean elimination.

Sampson promised the U.S. would deploy a more attacking look, although as was his habit, he wouldn’t reveal his plans for a starting lineup.

Midfielder Cobi Jones, however, said that the team had planned to start two forwards instead of one, in that distressing 2-0 defeat to German several days prior, meaning Sampson was ready to abandon the 3-6-1 formation, perhaps for a more tradition 4-4-2.

Midfielder Tab Ramos realized there was plenty of urgency on the Americans’ part.

“It’s perfectly fine for people to be disappointing with the way we’ve been playing,” he said. “But this is still the World Cup. There is a chance we will play well the next two games and still go home with two losses. I know this is something we shouldn’t be talking about.”

A loss to Iran would be quite embarrassing for the USA since the Asians had been quoted as 600-to-one longshots to survive the opening round. The Iranians had used four coaches since the previous fall and wound up winless in its final five qualifying matches (0-2-3). They qualified by striking twice in the final 14 minutes to secure a 2-2 draw with Australia and became the 32nd and final team to reach France, via the away goal rule.

(Editor’s note: According to the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Mike Jensen, during post-match celebrations, women took off their scarves in public, which broke a taboo. Also, women were ordered not to attend a special celebration for the squad, but approximately 5,000 showed up and made their way into the stadium).

Iran’s attack was centered around three players who performed in the Bundesliga – midfielder Karim Bagheri and forwards Ali Daei and Khodadad Azizi.

“We gave to get behind them because they are a very good team going forward,” Ramos said. “I think we can play a much better game against them than Yugoslavia.”