USA v Iran, World Cup, Lyon, 21 June 1998
Every so often, when searching for something in the attic, I come across a grey box file with a red-and-white sticker advertising the Argentinian newspaper El Grafico stuck on the lid. Occasionally I open it and glance inside. Last weekend for the first time in many years I brought it down the ladder. It’s sitting on my desk as I type this: dusty, giving off a musty smell of aged paper tinged – though perhaps I’m imagining this – with the scent of garlic and black tobacco.
Inside are the relics of my trip to the 1998 World Cup – my laminated press pass, a raft of team sheets and tickets, a typed itinerary with hotel phone numbers, the articles I wrote for The Guardian, which my mother proudly cut out and kept, and the little booklet I did for When Saturday Comes.
There is my notebook too, a hardback Black n’ Red A5 with a sticker for Urawa Red Diamonds of the J League on the cover. Whenever I see it I smile at the memory of the people who gave it to me – three giggling Japanese women, dressed as geishas, I’d helped get a taxi to the Stade Municipal in Toulouse on the day their nation played their first-ever game in a World Cup finals.
France 98 was the first time I went to football as a journalist rather than a fan. I spent most of the first week sitting in media centres and on the tribune de presse convinced that at some point police would arrest me as an impostor. I had a heavy schedule of matches – 17 in 19 days. I criss-crossed the country by train using my Eurorail pass so often I had to get a supplementary booklet to write the journeys in.
I stayed in cheap hotels I’d found in the Le Routard guide. Some of them were charming, others were so like old people’s homes you half expected to find a mug with false teeth in it next to the bed. Not that it was a chore. After all, I was in France, I was watching football and I was getting paid for it.
By the time I’d watched my 10th game, Spain v Paraguay in Saint-Étienne, the matches had started to blur into one. Shaking my memory now I recall Roberto Baggio’s equalising penalty in the rain at Stade Lescure, a mad refereeing display in Toulouse (South Africa v Denmark) by a Colombian named John Rendón; Hristo Stoichkov stomping about like Alexei Sayle imitating Mussolini. The football was often dull, but it was fabulous. In fact, it was one of the happiest times of my life.
Game number 11 was a Group F fixture at the elegant Stade de Gerland in Lyon. Group F was the draw Fifa didn’t want and the one most supporters had a feeling was inevitable. At the ceremony in Paris, Germany and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia had already been drawn, and they were then joined by the team from Pot C, Iran. Pot D was drawn next. An excited buzz went up when the name was read out: USA.
Hamid Estili’s header beats the USA goalkeeper Kasey Keller to put Iran ahead in Lyon. Photograph: Patrick Kovarik/EPA
Relations between the US and Iran had been hostile since the revolution of 1979. In 1993 Bill Clinton placed an embargo on all US trade with Iran. Sport had inevitably become mixed up in the dispute. When the Iranian wrestler Rasoul Khadem won an Olympic medal in Atlanta in 1996, Iran’s president, Akbar Rafsanjani, said the grappler had raised Iran’s flag “in the house of Satan”.
After the draw, the US state department suggested the game might help thaw relations between the two countries. Iranian officials played down the match as some kind of war minus the bullets, too. The US Soccer Federation president, Alan Rothenberg, meanwhile, tried to lighten things up with a wisecrack. “All we need now is an Iraqi referee,” he said. As it was, when an official was allocated for the fixture in Lyon they got the Swiss Urs Meier, who six years later would have to go into hiding after being hounded by irate England fans.
On the face of it the Americans seemed to have the better side, or at least the better known. By comparison the Iran players were largely unknown. The exception was the powerful forward Ali Daei, who’d had such a successful season at Arminia Bielefeld that Bayern Munich had signed him.
Iran had made it through to France via a play-off with Australia. The Aussies, managed by the English media’s favourite geezer, Terry Venables, had drawn the first leg in Tehran and been 2-0 up in the second in front of 85,000 fans at Melbourne Cricket Ground. But Iran had clawed their way back and in the 79th minute Khodadad Azizi – who played for Cologne – had hit the equaliser. Iran sneaked through on away goals, the Australian TV commentators so distraught by the turn of events that one of them broke down in tears.
Despite success in the qualifiers, the Iran FA had lost patience with their Brazilian manager Valdeir Vieira and fired him shortly afterwards. In came Jalal Talebi, an Iranian who was – ironically – living with his family in the US when he was appointed. Talebi and his wife ran a vegan restaurant in Silicon Valley and he coached part-time in a local college.
On the day of this big, fraught game things started slowly. Kick-off wasn’t until nine in the evening, but I had copy to file and, since I had a limited budget, I wanted to take full advantage of the free coffee and croissants.
Ahead of me in the queue a senior BBC commentator whinged about the slowness of the service, while to my rear Ian St John smiled cheerfully and winked. At 11.30am a Fifa directive came around saying that places in the press stand were oversubscribed and a waiting list was being drawn up.
Usually, the first pick of tickets went to journalists of the competing countries, but back in 1998 the mainstream US media took about as much interest in soccer as they did in the politics of Liechtenstein, while Iranian journalists were almost outnumbered by those from the Falkland Islands (a bloke from Port Stanley who supported Preston North End). When the confirmed list came around my name was on it.
Photograph: Pitch Publishing
The vast temporary hanger that housed the Lyon press centre filled up fast and early. A rumour was going around that 7,000 tickets for the game had been bought on the black market by members of the Iraq-sponsored Iranian dissident group the People’s Mujahedin of Iran (MEK).
Most football writers had no idea who MEK were, but those who knew how to use the Ask Jeeves web search engine on the media centre’s mighty computers quickly discovered that MEK were led by a woman named Maryam Rajavi, had carried out violent attacks on Iranian embassies around the globe and were listed as a terrorist organisation by just about everyone in the western world.
I went up to the press stand an hour before kick-off. Huddles of Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité (CRS) riot police clustered around the concourses, red packs of teargas on their backs and their shields stacked. A police marksman perched behind me, rifle on a tripod, cheeks marked with anti-glare makeup stripes, his telescopic sight trained on the opposite stand.
The Away Leg: XI Football Stories From On the Road (Pitch Publishing), edited by Steve Menary and James Montague. RRP £12.99. All profits go to Community Integrated Care.
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