Paris, July 11, 1998. On the eve of the World Cup final , a friendly football match was mentioned in a room on the first floor of a building on the famous Champs Elysees in Paris, after which a bustling death threat was made. I had to intervene and American airspace closed.
That night, US Soccer was hosting an event to promote the US hosting of the 1999 Women’s World Cup.
There was a light conversation between the people wearing suits, so much so that two old friends came face to face.
One of them was Mehrdad Masoudi of Iran, the communications director of the Canadian Soccer Association, whose term was coming to an end. The other was US Soccer Secretary General Hank Stein Brecker. It is said that in football federations and confederations hardly anything happens without the consent of the General Secretary.
Three weeks ago, the two men were watching a match in Lyon, France, in which Iran defeated the United States 2-1. Due to the enmity between the two countries, this group stage match became the most politically tense match in the history of the world.
Iran has been under US economic sanctions since 52 members of the US embassy in Tehran were taken hostage in 1979. The Islamic Revolution that year saw the overthrow of Raza Shah Pahlavi, an ally of the United States.
But on the day of the match, then-US President Bill Clinton, in a speech, expressed hope that it would be a step towards ending the animosity between the two countries.
Meanwhile, before the match, the Iranian players also gave presents to their American rivals.
Whatever the outcome of the match, it was a diplomatic achievement for the two rivals to play each other on the ground, and the memory was fresh in the minds of Masoodi and Steinbrecht.
“I said, ‘Hank, why don’t you repeat it?’ Home and away games. On the occasion of the anniversary of this match, first Iran came to the United States next year and then the next year you go to Iran.
Steinbrecht liked the idea and saw an opportunity.
He says the World Cup defeat at the hands of Iran was the biggest defeat of his tenure.
“We hit the goal post three times. We didn’t have a bad game, we had a bad reputation during this tournament. They beat us, let’s go and enjoy them. ‘
It was also hoped that the games would somehow bring Iran and the United States closer, as similar so-called “ping pong” diplomacy brought the United States and China closer in the 1970s.
Work began with a handshake between Massoudi and Steinbrecht. Now they had to stop the political forces ready against them and somehow get the job done.
“Luck brought the two teams together to play 98 matches in France,” says Masoodi.
“This time, one side had to send an invitation to the other, which had to accept it, and then both sides had to deal with their governments.”
The Iranians first laid down a very sensitive and completely unconditional condition, which was that their delegation should not be exempted from fingerprints on arrival in the United States, nor should they be photographed. Go.
“I’ve seen it happen to 80-year-old grandmothers, I’ve seen my mother go through it,” says Masoodi.
“Anyone who is not used to it feels like he is being treated like a criminal. I told Hank that he would have to talk to the State Department and the US Immigration Service about an exemption.
It was a moment for Steinbrecht to realize how many problems he would have to face until the idea of a meal in Paris was brought to the ground in California.
“It felt like there was going to be a crisis almost every hour,” he says. From the fingerprints of the players to the mullahs saying that they will not play the match because alcohol is being advertised inside the stadium.
“There were many, many obstacles and fortunately we forgot so much that we thought we were doing something good for humanity.”
The first match was originally played in the summer of 1999 in Washington DC.
But the symbol of playing in the White House city was something very important for the Iranian government, which did not allow the team to go to the United States.
Instead, the game was rescheduled to the Pasadena Rose Bowl in Los Angeles in January 2000. There are more than half a million Iranians living here and that is why they call it Tehranjlis. This was the last match of the three-match series against the United States after friendly matches against Ecuador and Mexico.
But two months later, by November 1999, the problem of fingerprints had apparently become an insurmountable crisis. Tham Meredith, who was the director of events at US Soccer, told Masoudi that fingerprints could not be exempted.
But the players will still be taken to a private airport in Chicago where their fingerprints and photos will be taken.
“I said stop, it can’t happen at all,” says Masoodi. If I tell Iran this, they will cancel the match immediately. The agreement was reached on this condition and as an Iranian I cannot say that.
“It will give those who don’t want that to happen a chance to stop the team from traveling.”
The solution was with the US State Department, which is effectively the US State Department. He persisted, but then just two weeks ago a mysterious intervention took place and the Iranians were released.
“I don’t know what the chain of command was at the time, but I think it went a long way (in the US administration),” says Steinbrewer.
“We did it, they did it. But they didn’t see things the way our federation did. There were not many people in the State Department who were assigned the task of international diplomacy through sports.
However, if Steinbrecht and his associates thought they had gone through the worst, they would have done so without the complex machinery of the Iranian government, of which the president is not the biggest component.
With the dawn of the new millennium and just days before the Iranian team flew to the United States, the next political crisis in Tehran began.
Under pressure from his political masters, Iran’s reformist President Mohammad Khatami called on Mohsen Safaye Farhani, president of the Iranian Football Federation, to end the visit.
“But Safai had signed the agreement and American football had waived it, so Iran was obliged to travel according to the agreement,” Masoudi said.
“These matches were against strong opponents, and they were making more than ڈالر 200,000 from three matches. Never before has Iran been given such a large sum of money to play a friendly match.
Safai Farhani stuck to his word. It was decided that the visit would be as planned. On this occasion, Tham Meredith became an important figure.
“I was not the kind of person who would approach different countries and ask for friendly matches,” Meredith said. I was the man who was told, look, we’re playing with the Iranians, and you know how to do it. ‘
Meredith traveled to Frankfurt to meet with the Iranian team that was coming to the United States from there. In the transit lounge, they faced another crisis.
“An Iranian player met the team in Germany, where he used to play,” says Meredith. “He was leaving his club after the tour and he showed me the key to his apartment. “I have to return the key to get my deposit back,” he said.
‘I thought,’ Then what do I do with it? I wrote to the head of the delegation on a piece of paper that “if this player misses the flight, the American Soccer Federation and Thomas P. Meredith will have no responsibility.”
“He signed it, and so did I. It basically said that if he could not get to where we are now in the transit zone, it would not be a mistake to stop.
The player returned, but shortly before catching a flight to Chicago, Meredith was told that about half of the delegation’s flights had not yet been paid for.
“It was about 3 in the morning in Chicago,” says Meredith. Who should I call? What would I do if I called someone? Maybe they’ll hang up my phone. ‘
Only one answer found. They will have to pay the 13,000 bill themselves and ‘keep the receipt somewhere safe.’
“My company’s credit card limit was 5,000 5,000. My personal credit card limit was 30 30,000. So I stand there and toss an imaginary coin in the air thinking: I have to do this, but will I get my money back? ‘
He did just that, and at the same time upgraded to business class. It was also a kind of reward for the desk staff in trouble.
For hours the Iranian team was in the air, out of reach of destructive phone calls and towards the United States.
But when he landed at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, that’s what everyone was praying for.
“We had a separate line on immigration because they knew it was a special agreement,” says Meredith.
The agent started with the first boy and took out an ink pad and said we have to take fingerprints and we will take pictures of you.
Immediately, the head of the Iranian delegation said: We are going home. That’s enough. You lied. ‘
“I said leave it to me, we’re done.”
“Like a magician, Meredith pulled out a letter from the head of the Chicago Immigration and Naturalization Service stating that Iranians are exempt.”
So Iranian footballers became the second Iranian sports delegation to set foot on American soil since the 1979 revolution, following a wrestling squad that arrived in the United States five years ago.
The players’ liaison officer was Iranian-American referee Asfandyar Bahramast. He also came to the United States in 1972 to join the growing number of Iranian students. Although his academic qualifications were in chemical engineering, football was his passion.
He became a referee when a serious knee injury turned his game upside down and he also played in the 1998 World Cup. By January 2000, he had reached the position of Director of Referees in US Soccer. But as a fan of Iranian football, he was now living his dream.
“I was with the players all the time,” he says. From the moment they arrived until the moment they boarded the plane to depart.
“We took them on tours, we went shopping with them, whatever we needed to do. We also toured Universal Studios, The Golden Gate Bridge and Lombard Street in San Francisco.
“I just wanted to make sure he enjoyed it and I give a lot of credit to both federations.”
Hank Steinbrecht was, in fact, a wise man. They saw the importance of this and did their best to make their stay comfortable.
“Winning and losing in the game, but for me it’s about humanity and watching this match in an atmosphere of peace and friendship was more of a matter of pride for me than anything else. The idea was that in 90 minutes of football, we could take the relationship between the two countries forward for many years to come.
Now that the Iranians are finally on American soil, a covert security operation has taken place.
“There were some people with us who were the secret police, who were watching us and knowing where we were at any given moment, but they were not interfering,” he said.
“If you didn’t know they were here, you wouldn’t even notice their presence.”
In the first two matches, Iran defeated Ecuador 2-1 and then lost to Mexico by the same score. Both times, a large number of Iranian-American fans were present.
But as the time for the match with the United States approached, fear began to appear instead of happiness.
An unknown Islamic group started making calls in Iranian hotel rooms. He was offered a bribe for not playing the match and was threatened if he did not do so.
“Two days before the match, someone called Iran’s coach Mansourpur Haidari and offered him دس 1 million if he did not play,” Masoudi said.
Someone called Iranian football president Mohsen Safaye Farhani and claimed he was one of Iran’s highest authorities. He threatened that if the match took place, the flight to bring the delegation back home would be canceled.
“I was there when he got the call,” says Masoodi. He was very steadfast and said that the people you claim to represent know where I am. They have my phone number and they can call me directly.
One theory that was taken seriously was that alcohol sponsorship of the match offended the religious sensitivities of the intimidators. The main sponsor of the match was Anheiser-Bush, the company that makes Budweiser beer.
In a meeting before the start of the match, the US Soccer Federation also offered to change the sponsor.
“I said, ‘Look, I know the people of Anheiser-Bush.
“I will let them put more (ads) on another day. There is no need to risk yourself for this match.
But Safai Farhani rejected the offer.
“As a football administrator, he knows how difficult it is to convince sponsors,” says Masoodi. The loss of a single program is the loss of your reputation in front of the sponsors.
“I was translating and I had to hold back my tears until the sentence was over.”
Steinbrewer recalls: ‘You want to talk about moral honesty? They showed me their colors. I can tell you that he was a solid man.
Despite this, steps were taken to protect the Iranian players. According to Masoodi, the roads outside the team’s hotel were closed and no one was allowed to park near the hotel.
He says the FBI had parked another bus outside the hotel with the “Iran” branding to make sure no one chased the team to the stadium. The original team bus was kept out of sight in the hotel’s deserted underground car park.
The first fake bus with fake footballers. And as soon as his journey began, the Iranian national team was smuggled through kitchens and service lifts.
The Pasadena Rose Bowl hosted two World Cup finals and the final of the 1984 Olympic football tournament. But there is hardly such a ‘friendly match’ atmosphere on these occasions.
The airspace above the hotel was closed so that no one was planning to shoot down the plane. But unfortunately, 18 months later, this is what happened on 9/11.
There must have been pre-match parties that preceded any American sports competition and featured food and beer, but this time there was a change.
Instead of steaks and burgers, Masoudi says, there were now Iranian kebabs.
“Outside the stadium, it looked like a special NFL opportunity. But when you get closer and see people and smell the food, it becomes clear that this is an American outing organized by the Iranians.
Among the more than 50,000 spectators was Saeed Mousavin, who arrived in Los Angeles from Colorado.
“How often do you see your national team playing,” he says. There was a feeling that it might never happen again. ‘
“I had an American girlfriend at the time. She went with me and painted her face with American and Iranian flags. Blonde girl with Iranian flag on her face. And I put on an Iranian shirt. “
After the match, he asked an American player if he would like to go to Iran and play a friendly match, to which he replied, “We don’t need it because we were in Iran today.”
“It simply came to our notice then. Everyone was happy. If the American team gave a good pass or tackled, even when they scored, we would give them credit.
“I felt bad when they scored but at the same time it was a great shot.”
The first goal was scored by Iran’s new winger Mehdi Mehdavikia. In the second half of the match, American midfielder Chris Arms equalized the match by scoring a goal. The 1-1 draw was a diplomatic result that could not be exploited politically. But it has not helped improve relations between Iran and the United States, as many have hoped. And tensions remain high in both countries.
“We were innocent,” says Steinbrecht. We thought we were doing something very good for both countries through our game. But again, these would mean that you have to spend for these processes.
The match in Iran, which was originally planned, is yet to take place. In January 2001, the United States was invited to a tournament called The Civilization Cup, in which they were to represent the new world, while Iran, Egypt and Greece were to represent the old world. But for the Iranian Football Federation, the membership fee was out of reach.
Yet, for the architects of these matches, the friendly match that started the new century with the hope of a better future was not in vain.
“I have a prayer mat on the floor, a gift from the (Iranian) delegation,” says Tham Meredith.
“It simply came to our notice then. In fact, if my house catches fire, that’s probably one of the first things I’d pick up before I go out the door. ‘
“As a student of history, geopolitics and sports, I am very proud to be a part of it.”