It was 3 a.m. in Lyon, France, and hundreds of Iranians were still partying at the Place Bellecour, a park in the center of town.
“I-ran! I-ran!” they chanted, waving their green, red and white flags. Their team had just eliminated the favored United States from the 1998 World Cup with a 2-1 victory in one of the most politically charged games in tournament history. The tensions ran so high that security officers labeled the match “high risk.”
I was there, in Lyon, 24 years ago, the last time the United States and Iran clashed in a World Cup. The memories of that day remained vividly etched in my mind as I tuned in to Tuesday’s thrilling USA 1-0 win over Iran in Qatar.
This time, it was the American fans celebrating, chanting “USA! USA!” as the U.S. team advanced to the knockout round, where it will play the Netherlands Saturday at 10 a.m.
The U.S. needed a win over Iran to advance. A tie would have sent the Americans home, which is what made the second half of Tuesday’s game so stressful for the players — and the millions of fans watching. Anybody who still thinks soccer is boring was not watching that game and does not understand the drama and difficulty it takes to score and prevent goals.
It is what makes the sport so wonderful, that each goal is so precious. And when national pride and geopolitical tensions hang over the match, it is even more compelling.
The U.S. took the lead in the 38th minute, when Sergino Dest headed a cross to a sprinting Christian Pulisic, who knocked it in from close range and in the process collided with the Iranian goalkeeper.
Pulisic stayed down for several minutes with an abdominal injury, hobbled off the field and somehow re-entered for the end of the first half, proving just how much this game meant to him. But he did not return for the second half, and his status for Saturday’s game is unknown.
One second-half goal from Iran would have ended the Americans’ dreams, but the men in blue clamped down on defense and managed to hold off the Iranians until the final whistle.
Both the 1998 and 2022 games were fraught with political overtones; and both were preceded by flag controversies.
Tens of thousands of Iranian exiles who opposed the country’s Islamic fundamentalist regime showed up at Stade de Gerland that June day of 1998 carrying resistance flags, which were confiscated by police at the gates and stuffed into large garbage bags. Police were under strict orders to take away banners or flags that made political statements (sound familiar?).
Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini and his followers referred to the United States as “the Great Satan,” and the match was played 18 years after 52 Americans were taken hostage and held for 444 days by supporters of the Iranian revolution.
All fans and media members were body searched before entering that day. Iranian players gave the Americans white flowers and a silver platter during pregame handshakes. U.S. players gave Iranians banners. The teams posed together for a photo.
Then-President Clinton said before the game: “As we cheer today’s game between American and Iranian athletes, I hope it can be another step toward ending the estrangement between our nations.”
And yet, 24 years later, the tensions between the nations remained high heading into Tuesday’s match. On Monday, the eve of their must-win Group B game, U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter and captain Tyler Adams were grilled with political questions from the Iranian media.
Nationwide protests in the streets of Iran and its expanding nuclear program have been in the news, and tensions ahead of Tuesday’s game rose after US Soccer removed Iran’s emblem from their flag on social media in a display of support for the protestors. The post was removed after the Iranian uproar.
Berhalter and Adams insisted the flag controversy was not a distraction, that the team was “laser focused” on the task at hand. They were desperate to make up for the humiliation of four years ago, when the United States failed to qualify for the 2018 Russia World Cup.
And they were determined not to repeat the disastrous loss to Iran from 24 years ago. The U.S. was heavily favored in that game, ranked No. 11 in the world while Iran was No. 42.
FOX analyst Alexi Lalas, who played for the United States in that match, said before Tuesday’s game: “In the 1998 World Cup, USA lost to Iran. We made the mistake of underestimating how much the historically contentious relationship between our countries motivated, fueled and informed Iran’s performance. It was more than a game to them. Here’s hoping we learn from history.”
Apparently, the new generation of Americans learned the lesson. They did not take Iran for granted. They came out fired up from the opening whistle, dominating possession and creating several first-half scoring chances.
And Berhalter, who had been criticized by some fans throughout the past months, surely earned the respect he deserves by getting his team to the Round of 16. Team USA, with the youngest starting lineup and the youngest captain in 23-year-old Adams, tied Cup favorite England, tied Wales and beat Iran in a do-or-die game.
And so, the journey continues for the United States. The Americans are alive for at least one more round. Fans can breathe again…at least until Saturday morning.
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