The big moment against its biggest foe

The 2-1 defeat of United States at France 98 remains Iran’s only victory in the World Cup from nine appearances at three editions, but there is nothing in the universe it would trade that result for.

On June 21, 1998, Iran and the United States of America met in Lyon’s Stade de Gerland, just off the banks of the Rhone. It had been almost 20 years since the Islamic Revolution in Iran had toppled the America-backed Shah, but tensions between the two nations still simmered. With all the distrust and political antagonism, it was set up to be a fixture like few others in FIFA World Cup history.

But unlike their heads of state, the two teams saw it as little more than a football match. “I am not a political man, I am a sportsman,” the Iran coach, Jalal Talebi, who at the time had lived for 17 years in California, said. “We came here to show everyone there are no problems between people of two countries.”

The Iranian FA decided to use the opportunity to send out a message of peace, and before kick-off, the kit-man (it is believed) was sent out to buy flowers. Each Iranian player thus walked out onto the pitch with a bouquet of white roses, offering them to their American counterparts as both teams posed together for a combined pre-match photograph.

Iran took the lead in the 40th minute through Hamid Estili before a young Mehdi Mahdavikia doubled the advantage. The US missed a number of chances, hitting the woodwork four times, and only managed a consolation goal four minutes from the end.

The final whistle sparked delirious scenes, both on the pitch and in Tehran, where all conservatism was put aside for one evening. “It is a big victory for the Iranian nation, not because it was the United States, but because it was Iran’s first World Cup win,” Talebi said.

The Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country’s spiritual leader, later sent the team a wonderful congratulatory message. “Tonight, again, the strong and arrogant opponent felt the bitter taste of defeat at your hands,” he said. “Be happy that you have made the Iranian nation happy.”

The 2-1 win remains Iran’s only one in the World Cup from nine appearances at three editions, but there is nothing in the universe it would trade that result for. Beyond that, though, there are few bright spots. Iran first qualified for the finals in 1978, when heavy defeats to the Netherlands and Peru sandwiched a draw with Scotland. Half of the eight goals conceded came through penalties, a sign of the team’s naivety perhaps.

A 20-year-wait followed before qualification for France 98 was achieved in dramatic circumstances. In the second leg of the Asia-Oceania play-off at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, Iran recovered from 2-0 down with 19 minutes left on the clock to break Australian hearts. At the tournament, Iran did not embarrass itself, but there was still no progress beyond the group stages. The success over the US was book-ended by tight losses to a talented Yugoslavia and Germany.

The country failed to qualify in 2002, this time losing to the Republic of Ireland in the play-offs. Under Branko Ivankovic there came a third finals appearance in 2006, but the campaign ended with a solitary point, earned 15 minutes from time in a meaningless tie with Angola.

* * * Mahdavikia, a dangerous floater

Aright full-back, who later shone as a rightwinger, Mehdi Mahdavikia is one of Iran's most gifted and recognisable players of all time. He made 111 appearances for the national side, making his debut in 1996 and retiring in 2009, after he had captained the team for three years. Mahdavikia spent eight seasons with Hamburg in the Bundesliga, where he carved out a reputation as a swift dribbler with a penchant for hurtling down the flanks.

Nicknamed The Carpet in Germany for his ability to float past defenders, Mahdavikia memorably scored the second goal in Iran's defeat of the US at France 98. He also turned out for VFL Bochum and Eintracht Frankfurt before retiring last year at the age of 35, the Iranian club Persepolis his last employer.