Lalas: U.S. overlooked importance to Iran of '98 Cup match
Doha, Qatar — Looking back to the United States' infamous 1998 World Cup loss to Iran, Alexi Lalas thought the Americans failed to appreciate the emotional significance of their opponents.
"Understanding the importance of this game, not just from a soccer perspective but from a cultural perspective, I think is crucial for the United States," the former American defender said Sunday. "I don't think we knew how important it was to them beyond the actual World Cup. And I think actually we purposely tried to downplay a lot of the other stuff."
Politics were injected ahead of Tuesday's rematch. The U.S. Soccer Federation briefly displayed Iran's national flag on social media without the emblem of the Islamic Republic on Sunday. The USSF said it made the decision in "support for the women in Iran fighting for basic human rights."
Iran's semiofficial Tasnim news agency described the USSF as "removing the symbol of Allah" from Iran's flag.
Following draws against Wales and England, the U.S. needs a win to reach the knockout stage of its first World Cup since 2014. Team Melli, seeking to advance for the first time in six Cup appearances, would reach the round of 16 with a victory and perhaps with a draw, depending on the England-Wales match played simultaneously.
The U.S. and Iran met in Lyon, France, at the 1998 tournament, 19 years after an Islamic Revolution overthrew U.S.-backed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.
Iran referred to the U.S. as the "Great Satan" and Team Melli upset the Americans 2-1 for its first World Cup win, eliminating the Americans after just two games. After losing to Germany in its group-stage finale, Iran was welcomed at Mehrabad International Airport by thousands of fans blowing trumpets and waving Iranian flags.
"If anything, you have to understand the emotion of the opponent and how that will fuel them," said former American midfielder Stu Holden, now a Fox broadcaster. "And if you don't match that energy, then you're going to come off second best."
In the first World Cup played in the Middle East, Iran opened with a 6-2 loss to England and rebounded with two late goals to beat Wales 2-0.
"I envision the game being hotly contested for the fact that both teams want to advance to the next round, not because of politics or the relations in our countries," U.S coach Gregg Berhalter said. "We're soccer players and we're going to compete, they're going to compete and that's it really."
Iranian players presented white flowers to the U.S. before the game in a gesture of peace, and American players gave their opponents USSF pennants. Both teams posed for a group photo.
Federation spokesman Neil Buethe said Brian McBride and Earnie Stewart, players from the 1998 team who now are national team executives, were not available to discuss the match.
Defenders Tim Ream and Walker Zimmerman downplayed the political aspect Sunday, much as their predecessors did in 1998.
"I think you go the opposite way. I think you lean into the fact that this is Iran and this is a country and culture that we have a long history with — a lot of it is negative, let's be honest," said Lalas, an unused substitute in the 1998 game and now a Fox analyst.
McBride hit the crossbar in the third minute and McBride, Claudio Reyna and David Regis struck posts.
Iran went ahead when Hamid Estili scored on a counterattack in the 40th minute, Mehdi Mahdavikia made it 2-0 with a breakaway goal in the 83rd, and Iran went on to its first World Cup win despite allowing McBride's goal in the 87th.
"I think that the emotional side of having to win to get into the next round is enough to be up for. I don't think we have to worry about anything else in terms of what the game means," Ream said. "If that's not enough to get our guys up, then I think we have issues, but I don't think that's going to be a problem."