Iran and the United States face off at the World Cup in Doha, Qatar on November 29. The match coincided with escalating tensions over failed diplomacy to revive the 2015 nuclear deal, Iran’s drones to Russia for use in the Ukraine war, and the government crackdown on months of protests. The match was highly anticipated in Iran, where soccer is the most popular sport. The national team, or Team Melli, was Asia’s highest-ranking team, above Japan and South Korea.
The two teams met only once before, during the 1998 World Cup in Lyon, France, when Iran won 2-1. Before the match almost a quarter century ago, relations between Washington and Tehran had been strained for the two decades since the 1979 revolution. The presidents of both countries expressed hope that the match would mark a turning point. Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, a reformist who had proposed dialogue with the West to bring down “the wall of mistrust,” viewed soccer as a form of track II diplomacy, Houchang Chehabi, who authored studies on the politics of Iranian football and U.S.-Iranian sports diplomacy, told The Iran Primer. In a message to the team, Khatami said, “We have to let our personal problems lie and concentrate on our collective and national religious values.”
In a videotaped statement, President Clinton, went further. “The World Cup is beloved across our planet because it offers a chance for people from around the world to be judged not by the place they grew up, the color of their skin, or the way they choose to worship but by their spirit, skill, and strength,” he said. “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. I am pleased that over the last year, President Khatami and I have both worked to encourage more people-to-people exchanges and to help our citizens develop a better understanding of each other's rich civilizations.”
The players shook hands and exchanged gifts before the kickoff. Iranian players gave the Americans white roses, symbols of peace. The Americans gifted the Iranians with red and white pennants. The teams mingled for a pre-game group photo, arms around each other’s shoulders, instead of posing as separate teams.
Both teams played intensely but without animosity. In the early minutes, U.S. halfback Claudio Reyna helped Iranian forward Ali Daei get up after knocking him down. The Americans had control of the ball for much of the game but had trouble scoring. Iran’s Hamid Estili scored with a header in the 40th minute, and Mehdi Mahdavikia scored a breakaway goal in the 84th minute. Brian McBride scored the only U.S. goal, a diving header, in the 87th of 90 minutes to close the game out.
After the match, several players exchanged jerseys. “After 20 years and all the situations [between Iran and the United States], it was important to show that all the things said about Iran were not true,” Iran’s team captain and goalkeeper Ahmad Abedzadeh said. “We were courageous. We played fair. It was very important.” U.S. defender Jeff Agoos was not bitter about the loss. “We did more in 90 minutes than the politicians did in 20 years,” he said.
Even the American and Iranian fans were friendly to each other. Ironically, the only scuffles that broke out were between rival Iranian factions, including supporters of the Mujahedeen-e Khalq (MEK), an exiled opposition group.
Iranians of disparate political orientations celebrated the win. Hardliners framed it as victory against imperialism, embodied by the United States. “Tonight again, the strong and arrogant opponent felt the bitter taste of defeat at your hands,” Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said. “Be happy that you have made the Iranian nation happy.”
The game set in motion new contacts between Iran and the United States. In January 2000, Iran’s national team traveled to California for exhibition matches against national teams from Mexico, Ecuador and the United States. The friendly rematch with the Americans was held at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, a suburb of Los Angeles, home to hundreds of thousands of Iranian-Americans. Nearly 50,000 people attended, the vast majority of whom cheered for Iran. Iranian flags outnumbered American flags in the stands.
The game ended in a 1-1 tie. “It was a great match, and we would love an opportunity to play Iran again,” said Bruce Arena, the American coach. “It was a well-played game, both sides showed good sportsmanship, and it was a fair result.”
The contact was compared to ping-pong diplomacy between the United States and China in the early 1970s. “The difference was that the ping-pong diplomacy had been authorized by the highest authority in China. So it was meant to be the beginning of a thaw,” said Chehabi, a Boston University historian. In Iran, however, the president, who does not have ultimate power, approved the sports diplomacy. So, when President Khatami’s second term ended in 2005, “it just fizzled out,” Chehabi added. The United States and Iran have engaged in other sports, including:
Wrestling: Iran and the United States have long been among the top teams worldwide in freestyle wrestling. In February 1998, five American wrestlers went to Tehran to compete against 17 other countries for the Takhti Cup. They were the first American athletes to travel to Iran since the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in 1979. The Americans were cheered when they defeated Iranian wrestlers. In April 1998, Iranian wrestlers competed at the Freestyle World Cup at Oklahoma State University.
The two teams have competed against each other dozens of times since then. “We have a positive and strong relationship built on years of competition,” Rich Bender, the executive director of USA Wrestling, told The Iran Primer in 2013. “Iranians have shown our athletes a great deal of respect on and off the field of play.” Both wrestling federations collaborated to keep wrestling in the 2020 Olympics.
In 2022, Iranian wrestlers were due to participate in an exhibition match in Arlington, Texas, but the delegation withdrew after six delegation members – including wrestling federation head Alireza Dabir, a former green-card holder—were denied visas. The United States did not explain the rejections, but Dabir had publicly endorsed the infamous “Death to America” chant. Weeks later, Dabir countered by inviting the U.S. team to Iran for a friendly match. “I assure you that my fellow wrestling and hospitable compatriots will welcome you with open arms,” he said in a letter.
Basketball: For decades, Iranian teams looked to Americans to improve their game. In 2000, the national team hired American coach Gary LeMoine. “I've been hardworking and honest and fair with my players, to demonstrate what's good about America. And maybe in some way that can eventually help open a dialogue between the governments,” he said. Since then, dozens of Americans—including Waverly Austin, Dwight Buycks, Garth Joseph, Parish Perry Petty, and Kevin Sheppard – have played on different local Iranian teams.
In 2021, the U.S. and Iran teams competed in the Tokyo Olympic Games. The U.S. delegation—including one former and 12 National Basketball Association (NBA) players—beat Iran 120-66. The athletes applauded one another’s national anthem; players also shook hands both before and after the game. Some of the U.S. team members already knew Hamed Haddadi, the Iranian center who had played for the Memphis Grizzlies from 2008 to 2013 and the Phoenix Suns in 2013 in the NBA.
Table Tennis: In 2008, male and female table tennis players from Iran participated in the U.S. Iranian Table Tennis Friendship tour. The athletes competed in the pre-U.S. Open International Tournament in Coral Springs, Florida and in the U.S. Table Tennis Open in Las Vegas, Nevada. “One must respect other's faith, culture, and lives'. We have found that in the U.S.,” said Shahrokh Shahnazi, the president of Iran’s table tennis federation.
Garrett Nada, managing editor of The Iran Primer, assembled this report.