Steve Sampson felt hoodwinked. The USA boss had diligently played down any rivalry with Iran before and during their clash at the 1998 World Cup, but looking back on the 2-1 defeat more than two decades on, he believes he was too diplomatic.
With the two teams going head-to-head at the finals again on Tuesday in a crunch match to decide who makes it out of Group B, memories are naturally going back to a match that’s impact reaches much further than sport. And Sampson feels certain where the US lost it.
“If I was to do it all over again, I’d make it more political,” admits the former head coach in new book How to Win the World Cup: Secrets and Insights from International Football’s Top Managers.
“I’d use history as motivation for my players that they [Iran] held American citizens captive for the longest period of time [during the 1979-81 Iran hostage crisis, 52 Americans were held in Tehran] and are literally one of the greatest enemies ever faced by the United States.
“I wanted to make it all about the football and de-politicise the whole event because, for me, our football was on display. Whereas for the Iranians, it was their politics on display.”
It’s a pretty explosive statement to make considering the furore that surrounded the group stage clash that was dubbed by then-US Soccer Federation President Alan Rothenburg as “the mother of all games” when the two nations were drawn together in Group F at France 98.
Yet while Sampson understands the need to have anaesthetised any possible security issues around the match, from a sporting perspective, he feels it left his side ill-prepared for a contest that was about so much more than three points.
USA and Iran’s relationship had long been fractious, although when the pro-American Shah was overthrown during the Iranian revolution of 1979, disagreements intensified. So by 1998, there had been no formal diplomatic relations since 1980 and the USA had placed Iran under a trade embargo.
“I was coming at it as an American kid who grew up in the suburbs and looked at Russia as the evil empire and the big enemy, but the in same way it was like that playing in the World Cup against Iran,” recalls USA defender Alexi Lalas, also in How to Win the World Cup.
“What they represented at that time to a 20-something who had been growing up in the 70s in the United States… was about to play out on the football field.”
Despite that strength of feeling, all of the pre-match rhetoric, at least publicly, was about smoothing any diplomatic issues. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei forbade his nation’s players from following FIFA protocol to approach the USA to shake hands before kick-off – arrangements were made to exchange roses instead – while the two sides took part in a joint team photo to portray a unified message.
There were rumours a terrorist group were planning a protest in the stands during the match, so 150 armed police were positioned around Stade de Gerland to stamp out trouble and TV broadcasters were under strict instruction to ignore any sign of unrest or controversial banners around the ground.
Sampson had gone along with this when it came to prepping his team too. Although it turned out that wasn’t the case in the opposite dressing room, with the importance of the match being made clear before the game and then with even more ferocity when Iran went in at the break 1-0 up.
“I later found out that at half time of that game when we were losing, a top politician from the Iranian government came down the locker room and collected all the passports of the Iranians and said ‘you lose this, you’ll never return home’,” says Sampson, who was later informed of what happened by Iran head coach Jalal Talebi.
“I achieved what I wanted to do [at the time], which was to make it a football event, not a political event, but the Iranians did exactly what they wanted to do. They made it a political event, so much so that after they beat us, every single one of the players were awarded a new home in Iran, paid for by the Iranian government. That would never have happened in the United States.”
Iran doubled their lead through Mehdia Mahdavikia in the second half and despite Brian McBride’s header halving the deficit late on, Iran held strong to win 2-1. Cue wild celebrations even though both sides failed to qualify from the group.
Those memories have inevitably resurfaced ahead of the clash between the two sides in 2022 and although the political landscape has changed in the 24 years since, those historical and cultural differences are still playing a huge part ahead of what’s almost a de-facto knockout game in Qatar.
The question is, how will the approaches of opposition managers Carlos Queiroz and Gregg Berhalter differ to their predecessors based on what went before and will similar tactics be employed again?
“They [Iran] used the relationship and the history and the propaganda, if you will, to motivate themselves and we didn’t match it with our performance,” Lalas adds.
“From a practical perspective, this was three points. When the draw came out, we said that we’re getting three points against Iran, boom, put that in the bag. If we don’t do that, there will be big problems. Obviously, we didn’t.”
Chris Evans is the author of How to Win the World Cup: Secrets and Insights from International Football’s Top Managers (Bloomsbury), which is out now and includes exclusive interviews with the likes of Sir Geoff Hurst, Roberto Martinez and Jamie Carragher.