Great Satan 1-2 Iran: the most politically charged match in World Cup history

(IranSportsPress – The Guardian) Eoin O’Callaghan – Iran’s surprise start in Russia comes 20 years after a breakout win over the USA in a match fraught with political underpinnings.

There was a small rubber ball, dusty streets and not much else. This was Jalal Talebi’s childhood growing up in Tehran in the 1950s.

Every day, he would race to the narrow alleyways and play football. His wish was to emulate his older brother, who was captain of the Iranian water-polo team. He wanted to represent his country too and play in front of big crowds. But he also dreamt of reaching a World Cup.

The family relocated to the San Francisco Bay area and Talebi set up a vegetarian restaurant with his wife, Sira, in Palo Alto while also coaching in some local colleges. But it wasn’t an easy transition. American-Iranian relations were at an all-time low.

“I can’t explain it. It’s still in my mind and my heart. But not because it was the US. It was the first World Cup victory at a time when Iranian people were waiting to be happy. And it made people happy. People in my country have never forgotten that night and how they danced in the streets until early morning.”

The game did succeed in bringing both countries closer and eighteen months later, they met again in a friendly in Pasadena.

“We did more in 90 minutes than the politicians did in 20 years,” former US defender Jeff Agoos remarked at the time.

But, things have been far from straightforward since.

Tension and suspicion returned following President George Bush’s ‘axis of evil’ comments in 2002. And despite an historic and progressive nuclear deal being co-signed in 2015 by Iran, the US and five other countries (which was greeted by more jubilant scenes on the streets of Tehran), Donald Trump announced in May that he was withdrawing the United States from the agreement and reimposing previously-suspended economic sanctions on Iran.

“If there’s any difference between two countries, they should sit in front of each other and talk and solve the problem,” Talebi says.

“The people need to be heard because it’s the people who suffer. They have to pay more than anybody. I wish and hope that those responsible for the happiness of their country and their people will talk and solve their differences without punishing those who will be impacted the most.”

Talebi quit as Iranian manager in August 1998. He returned briefly two years later and also had a spell in charge of the Syrian national team. Now in his mid-70s, he still visits Tehran frequently to see family. He walks through the same narrow alleyways where he played as a young boy and dreamt of being at a World Cup. But it’s different now.

“The streets are still there,” he says, before taking a pause.

“But everything has changed.”