The group stage match between the United States and Iran at the 1998 World Cup remains one of the most ignominious defeats in the history of the US men’s national team program.
The game was fraught with long-building political overtones. Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had previously referred to the US as “the Great Satan,” and the match came 18 years after 52 Americans were taken hostage by supporters of the Iranian revolution and held for 444 days before finally being released.
Yet it figured to be a game that the US would win. At the time, the Americans were 11th in FIFA’s world rankings and Iran were No. 42, and while the US team’s position seemed inflated, the match was seen as pivotal to the Americans’ hopes of advancing to the knockout rounds.
Instead, the US not only lost the match 2-1 but their entire World Cup effort unraveled. The defeat eliminated the US from the tournament and players went to the press to air their complaints about US manager Steve Sampson, accusing him of mismanaging the team on a multitude of levels.
Midfielder Tab Ramos told The Seattle Times: “This whole World Cup was a mess. If I had to blame people, I’d blame the coaches.”
It was an ugly display for the Americans, both on and off the field. Until the US failed to qualify for the World Cup in 2017, the match was viewed as the nadir of the program. After three defeats and a last-place finish in the tournament, Sampson resigned as manager while everyone else involved was left to ponder how the US could have performed so poorly and how they contributed to the debacle.
With the US and Iran set to face off at the 2022 World Cup in their final group stage match Tuesday — a must-win for the Americans — the US will be keen to avoid a repeat of the disaster from 24 years ago. Tensions ahead of Tuesday’s game have been rising after US Soccer scrubbed Iran’s emblem from their flag on social media in an effort to support protestors — only to reverse course within hours — and after Iran’s coach Carlos Queiroz publicly chastised former US coach Jurgen Klinsmann for his comments about the Iran team’s play and “their culture” in their win over Wales.
This is the story of the 1998 USA-Iran game, in the words of the people who lived the experience. Individuals are identified by their position or role at the time. Quotes have been lightly edited for clarity.
The World Cup draw took place in Marseille in December 1997, where the United States was drawn into a difficult group with Germany and Yugoslavia, but those match-ups were immediately overshadowed by the group’s inclusion of Iran, which had not qualified for the World Cup since 1978.
An Associated Press reporter at the draw set the scene for what was to come, writing: “One end of the stadium will have fans in Uncle Sam suits shouting ‘U-S-A!’ The other will have spectators jeering ‘The Great Satan.’ US Soccer Federation president Alan Rothenberg called it a ‘great opportunity to show that soccer and the World Cup can do what politicians and diplomats can’t.’ US captain John Harkes’ prediction? ‘I don’t think President Clinton is going to that game.’ “
Hank Steinbrecher, secretary general, US Soccer (1990-2000): So they start to draw and the first team we pick is Germany. Let’s see: We’ve had two world wars with them, and they are really, really good. Second team is Yugoslavia. Wonderful. We’re playing Yugoslavia. We’re bombing them as we speak. Third is Iran. Oh, wonderful. I had this distinct thought, “This is going to be a really tough Cup.”
Steve Sampson, head coach, USA (1995-1998): The Iranian regime hated America. That’s why that game was such a big game on the world stage, and had so much importance. Equally as much as the football piece was the political piece.
Preki, attacking midfielder, USA (1996-2001): I watched the draw in my hometown, Belgrade. At that time, it was Serbia and Montenegro. When we drew Iran, I thought that was a very decent draw for us because we could have a shot of advancing. I always knew that they’re a very talented team, aggressive team. And we also knew politically that, it’s going to be a tough game for us. We knew on all fronts, for the most part, what to expect.
Tab Ramos, midfielder, USA (1998-2000): I can’t say that I was an expert on the situation, but I always like to think that sports are above all this stuff. I was more excited about the fact that we had Germany and Yugoslavia in our group and some of the best players in the world were there.
Prior to the tournament, the U.S. appeared to be a team on the rise. Not only did the Americans reach the knockout stages of the 1994 World Cup, but there was the very credible fourth-place finish at the 1995 Copa America that included a 3-0 win over powerhouse Argentina.
But Sampson made a stunning decision just two months before the tournament: He dropped captain Harkes from the squad for what The New York Times reported as “both technical and leadership reasons.” It wasn’t until almost 12 years later that the real reason for Harkes’ dismissal was made public, when Eric Wynalda divulged that Harkes had had an affair with Wynalda’s wife at the time. Sampson confirmed Wynalda’s characterization of events.
Sampson: A lot of [the discontent] stemmed from the fact that probably a player that could have helped us quite a bit during the World Cup was John Harkes. I think he was an exceptional captain on the field, but it was impossible to keep him on the team based on his behavior off the field.
Eric Wynalda, forward, USA (1990-2000): I told [Sampson] to keep him. I thought, “If I can handle this, Steve, you got to be able to handle this.” And he said, “No, I’m taking this one to my grave.” And he went all weird on me.
Marcelo Balboa, central defender, USA (1988-2000): I think I read in Soccer America or somewhere that a hairstylist overheard somebody say that a veteran was not going to make the World Cup team, but they would be surprised. I gotta be honest with you, I didn’t even think Harkes. I thought me. When we heard it was Harkes, we were a little surprised. I mean, he took away the captain of the team.
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Sampson: [If I could do it again] I would have included the leadership group on the team in that decision. I tell myself that now. But I think I trust the fact that they would have come up with the same decision that I would have. Not everyone would have agreed. Certainly Alexi Lalas has gone on the record of saying that it shouldn’t have mattered.
Alexi Lalas, center-back, USA (1991-1998): I think what [Sampson] miscalculated was the ruthlessness, if you will, of athletes in that, I just want to win. And I want to be around people that helped me win. I don’t have to like them. I don’t have to respect them — other than being a good soccer player.
Sampson: I know that I couldn’t be completely forthcoming with the players until it came out in 2010, 12 years later. And I think there were some players there that didn’t understand that decision.
Sampson ruffled feathers again with his ultimately successful pursuit of Martinique-born defender David Regis, who acquired his US citizenship just months before the tournament and replaced Jeff Agoos in the starting lineup.
Further alienating players was the US team’s choice of locations for its World Cup base camp: a 12th century chateau in the French countryside, 30 miles outside of Lyon. The boredom was impossible to fight off, and it added to the overall sense of unease within the team.
Lalas: So in ’94, keep in mind that Bora [Milutinovich] was our coach. His big thing was, you have to feel and smell the environment, and the opportunity, and really embrace and harness it. And he went about doing that. He really wanted you to know that, “Hey, that’s your country behind you. And everyone’s excited about this World Cup.” Steve took the opposite tack and sequestered us. It’s really designed to focus you and relieve you of any of the obvious pressures and stresses that may come from going to a tournament. And in that sense, it had the best of intentions. But it was a real juxtaposition with ’94. And I think for a lot of us that had evolved and grown up, we couldn’t reconcile the beauty with the fact that we were playing in a tournament and didn’t feel like we were playing in a tournament.
Kasey Keller, starting goalkeeper, USA (1990-2007): We were in the middle of nowhere, an hour drive to our training facility. It was a s— show. It was like, after five minutes, everybody was ready to kill themselves. And each other. And you’re like, what the hell? “Oh, isn’t it beautiful?” Yeah, if I want a romantic weekend with my wife. Not with these guys. Are you kidding? It was just a bad decision.
While the US national team had its share of internal turmoil coming into the tournament, so did Iran. After helping Team Melli qualify for the World Cup with a famous result in Australia in November 1997, Brazilian manager Valdeir “Badu” Vieira was sacked after just two months in charge. His dismissal led to the appointment of Croatian Tomislav Ivic. Following a 7-1 friendly defeat to Italian Serie side AS Roma, Ivic was also fired just three weeks before the World Cup was set to begin.
Ivic was replaced by Jalal Talebi, an Iranian who relocated to the United States following the Iranian Revolution and had spent most of the previous two decades living in the San Francisco Bay Area. At different times, Talebi and Sampson had both served as assistant coaches at Foothill Junior College.
Jalal Talebi, head coach, Iran (1998): [The federation] chose me because there was not enough time to look for another coach. They knew that I had experience [with Iran] as a youth international coach. As a coach, I worked in several countries outside my country. And they knew that I knew the players. So that was the reason they asked me. It was hard for me, first of all, because it was a huge responsibility, especially in Iran. The only sport they love is football. So I know I’m going into a very big challenge. But I believed in myself, I believed in my players. I said, “OK, I am here and I’m going to try to do my best.”
The United States opened the tournament with a 2-0 loss to Germany, the reigning European champion.
Germany scored off a corner kick in the first half, before future US coach Klinsmann scored a goal in the second half to put the game away. It was an expected result, setting up the pivotal match six days later vs. Iran, which lost its opener 1-0 to Yugoslavia.
Sampson: There was an enormous amount of pressure on that game because we had lost to Germany in the first game and, prior to the ’98 World Cup, there were third-place teams that were able to go forward. The two best third-place teams in the ’94 World Cup were able to go forward, whereas that changed in ’98 where only the top two teams in each group were allowed to go forward. So mathematically, it played a much bigger role to get at least a tie, if not a win in the second game. From a psychological standpoint, it put a lot of pressure on us.
Talebi: People started talking about this game six months before the World Cup. Every day somebody from the government, from sports people, they’re asking and they want to win this game. It doesn’t even need me to come to the players and talk about the importance of this game. What I try to tell the players is, “Forget that. What they said is political.” I want to lessen the pressure on their mind and their body. I know how much pressure they have for this game.
Cobi Jones, midfielder, USA (1992-2004): It wasn’t like we were thinking about the political issues of it. That’s the thing. We just wanted to try to get through to the next round.
Brian Maisonneuve, midfield, USA (1997-2002): It was so much easier to put everything else aside and just focus on the game. In our downtime, we weren’t surfing the internet or on our phones. You couldn’t get the news like you can now. It was easier to block things out just because you had to work to find it. If you didn’t want to find it, it was easier then. Now there would be no chance.
Lalas: We know that soccer is politics, politics is soccer, especially at the highest level. We get all that, but in the lead-up to it, I think there could have been some more internal motivation and recognition of what was happening. And the fact that this is a team that we need to beat, especially if you’re looking, “Who are you going to get three points from?”
Publicly, the United States and Iran soccer federations tried to downplay the political component, but behind the scenes it was ever present, including at a logistics meeting with FIFA the day before the match.
In attendance were federation officials, coaches, team doctors and referees. They discussed items like uniforms, schedules, pre- and postmatch responsibilities.
Steinbrecher: We could tell that the Iranians are very upset. We started out the meeting with our delegation presenting the Iranian delegation a gift. They in turn gave us a gift as well. But the air was just thick. I mean, it was thick.
In a FIFA match, you go through the logistics of where you line up for the national anthems. There’s real protocol to this. You have Team A and Team B, one representing the home and the other the visiting. In this match, the United States was Team A and Iran was B. What that means is that at the end of the national anthems, Team B goes and shakes the hands of Team A and comes around and both teams take a photograph.
But the [Iranian political leaders] had instructed their delegates that there will be no such thing. That they would not shake the Americans’ [hands], period. So it was maybe an hourlong debate on this issue. FIFA had a really strong stance. They said if you don’t want to participate in the rules in a tournament, you’re free to go home. I thought, “Isn’t that interesting?” and really showed some balls. But it was really a tense meeting.
Instead of taking two separate team pictures, the United States proposed a joint photo prior to the match. The Iranians left the meeting upset, but later that night agreed to take the photo.
Talebi: It was the first time the team came together and have a picture together. This is the first time in the World Cup that happened. I don’t think any players, myself or staff in the national team or federation was thinking that, “OK, we are playing people we don’t like.” Never happened.
Steinbrecher: I thought about this personally, for my entire career since that game. I was the head of the delegation at that meeting, and I thought that I perhaps took a too-conciliatory tone with our counterparts, given the nature of what they’ve done in their nation. At the time, I thought this is the right thing to do. We’re sporting men. We’re not politicians. But there’s a great quote [from Ralph Waldo Emerson] that I use often: “An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man.” And on that day, I didn’t think I cast a very big shadow.
I think perhaps our mentality was too soft. The opposite would have been going to that meeting with sternness: “You sons of b—-es, you took our citizens, you a–holes.” Really inflamed things. In retrospect, that would never have worked, either.
Sampson: If I was to do it all over again, I would have used that to our advantage and make it more political with our players.
Bob Ley, play-by-play broadcaster, ESPN/ABC Sports: I remember going out for a walk the morning of the match. We’ve done our homework, what else could you do? I went for a walk up to the Basilica, where you get to go over and actually see the Alps. I’m walking back down into Lyon. I’m hearing and seeing cars and guys beeping and waving Iranian flags. Everybody was very festive. Yeah, sure, there are American fans, but for the Iranians, this was more than a match.
As I got closer and closer down to Vieux Lyon where all the tourist attractions were near where we were staying, these beeping horns and happiness of fans got louder and louder. Until you get down to where was the center of this Iranian fervor and prematch enthusiasm? It was centered at the one McDonald’s in old Lyon, which I thought was so beautifully counterintuitive. For the only time in my six weeks in France, I went into a McDonald’s because I couldn’t miss this opportunity and I ordered a “Great Satan” burger and sat there and ate it. I said, “This is perfect. We won the cultural war for the hearts and minds and palates.”
Preki: You can sense it big time. I can clearly recollect getting close to the stadium and the atmosphere around and, honestly, I sensed — I don’t know about other people — I sensed a lot of negative energy around the game. It was almost like on the verge of an expectation of something that nobody wants to see. That’s how I felt. Only a couple times in my life have I had that type of feeling.
Balboa: You realize the magnitude of it when we got to the stadium and you saw the SWAT and the snipers all along the rooftop of the stadium. You can tell they were preparing for something, just in case. When you saw the SWAT guys on the roofs, you can see them in different areas around the stadium, you realize that it was bigger than a regular game.
Rob Stone, reporter, ESPN/ABC Sports: I do remember walking into the stadium and getting on the field and, just like any human would do, doing that 360 spin and scan. I looked up and out and I was like, “What is that figure doing there?” It was an armed officer and probably a couple others who had taken position on an elevated platform that could oversee everything. Essentially, that was my wake-up call that, “Wow, there are snipers here just in case things go sideways,” and that’s when you started getting the feel of, “Uh-oh. Politics are starting to overtake the athletics.”
Talebi: There was a demonstration before the beginning of the game. It was a group [of Iranians] that were not happy with the [Iranian] government, who had a politically different idea about the government. It was a bit hard for us when we get inside the field to warm up and suddenly we see maybe 1,000 [demonstrators]. And they start to boo the players, just yell at our players, not support them. So it was a little bit hard for our players to understand. But we talked before the game. “This has happened. We have to come here. We are going to play.”
Ley: All that enthusiasm I saw at McDonald’s was replicated inside the arena, but as everybody was coming in to take their seat I overhead [mimics the sound of helicopter]. A French military helicopter is over the stadium. It’s getting lower and it’s getting lower and it’s getting lower, and it came down and it hovered. I would estimate between 75 and 100 feet over the stadium and over the pitch. It was a very low hover, much lower than I’ve ever seen at a sporting match. A large military helicopter — just show of presence. Not necessarily of force, but show of presence. Like, “Let’s all have fun today. But there’s plenty of security here,” and a not-so subtle reminder. That kind of set the tone for the day.
Stone: It was a different world that we were living in, so we knew that there might be some political statements in the crowd and, again, we’re living off of the world [broadcast] feed and they had pretty much made up their mind that they were not going to seek out those moments and kind of treated them almost like a protester or streaker running onto the field and just cut away to something else. Because I know the Iranian government was very concerned about those images being projected to the world and they wanted to make sure to the best of their ability that didn’t happen.
Prior to the game, the Iranian team presented the US team with white flowers, and they took a picture as had been discussed.
Talebi: We decided to make something special. Let us go inside and give them nice flowers to say that we are here for peace. We are not here for fighting or anything.
Jones: I thought that was great and it’s just like the sign of like sport trumping trumping politics and all that. That was very important and having the mixed photo was great.
Ramos: It was explained to us beforehand what was going to happen and what we needed to do after we went on the field. And I thought it was a great gesture, really. I was really happy about that because outside of the two starting elevens playing each other, this game became such a big deal.
Following the loss to Germany, feelings of consternation about a tactical shift were spreading among the players. Sampson decided to drop the 3-6-1 formation the team has exclusively worked on in favor of 3-5-2 and made five changes to the starting XI.
The starting lineup: Goalkeeper Kasey Keller, defender Eddie Pope, defender Thomas Dooley (c), defender David Regis, midfielder Frankie Hejduk, midfielder Tab Ramos, midfielder Claudio Reyna, midfielder Joe-Max Moore, midfielder Cobi Jones, forward Roy Wegerle, forward Brian McBride. Mike Burns, Brian Maisonneuve, Earnie Stewart, Chad Deering and Eric Wynalda moved to the bench.
Wynalda: The training sessions the two days after [the Germany defeat] were an absolute disaster. We made massive changes. We worked the whole time on this 3-6-1 and then we decided, “No.” We lasted one game, which just spoke volumes of just how disjointed we were as a group. When that lineup went up on the board, I think that there was such a feeling of discontent in the group just, “Oh my god,” like: “What are we doing?”
Keller: I think the part that kind of blew me away was that we did this 3-6-1 type thing. Ok, we lose 2-0 to Germany, but we weren’t overrun, right? You lose to Germany, no big deal. Then pure panic sets in and you change everything for Iran. If we had beaten Germany, it would have been one of US Soccer’s biggest upset wins in their history. So, who cares? You beat Iran, that’s all that matters and then you go into the last game, and if you get a result, great. All that mattered was the Iran game and the fact that everything got blown out in the lead up to it, that was the part that I think got questioned.
Balboa: I think when you saw the lineup — if you look at the experience you had sitting on the bench, it was frustrating to a few of us, especially leading into the World Cup when a few of us were never told why we went from starting every game to now sitting on the bench.
Jones: There were some lineup changes. I remember that I was playing on the left side. I remember Joe-Max Moore [who was usually a forward] was supposed to be playing as a left-back behind me and that was kind of like, “Wait, what’s going on?”
Wynalda: Joe-Max was playing — just rover? We didn’t know what position he was playing. He was playing a position he never played before — in a World Cup. You can’t say no to that, but he should have said no to that.
Talebi: I was living in Palo Alto. I knew a little bit about the American player. They have a lot of pride. They said they are going to beat every team. So I knew that they have a lot of psychology. That is because they should. The United States is the number one country in the world economically, politically. And so I believe that this is always the same feeling the players had. So what I did was I said to my players, “I know you will have a lot of difficulty in first maybe 20 to 30 minutes, because United States is going to come 100% to score goal.” And that’s exactly what happened. We want to win more than the United States. This is what I feel and then you have a chance.
The match began with the Americans on the front foot. Brian McBride hit the bar with a header in just the third minute. Claudio Reyna hit the post in the 33rd. But as Talebi predicted, Iran slowly gained a foothold in the match, and Keller was fortunate to avoid conceding a penalty when he upended Iran attacker Khodadad Azizi in the box, but referee Urs Meier waved play on.
But the US midfield was very attack-heavy, lacked a ball-winner and looked vulnerable in transition. Then in the 37th minute, against the run of play, Hamid Estili ghosted into the box completely unmarked, and sent a looping header over the outstretched hand of Keller and into the net. The US now found itself behind in a match that for the most part it had dominated.
Sampson: We had to win and it wasn’t about going out and trying to play for a tie because if you played for a tie, many times you end up losing. Our desire to win so badly showed on the field because we attacked with too many numbers and we lacked balance when we attacked, which led to their two counterattacking goals.
Wynalda: [The locker room at halftime was] quiet. Man, it was quiet. It was almost like, unfortunately things had gone so far that, “This is your problem, Steve. Fix it.” We were quiet because we had been conditioned over the last two months not to have an opinion.
Sampson: Literally at halftime — and the only reason I know is because Talebi was in Palo Alto, and we met after the World Cup and he told me this — their government officials came down and collected every single one of their passports and threatened them that if they lost the game, that they would not be allowed back into Iran. And that their family, and families would suffer because of it. And so they made it political.
Talebi: No, that never happened. We were winning 1-0. This isn’t true. Nobody came inside the locker room. It was just me and the head of the federation and the players. No one else was inside. Of course, the doctor also, to see the players.
With the U.S. trailing 1-0, Sampson made his first changes in the 57th minute, putting on Preki and Stewart for Wegerle and Ramos. But the woodwork continued to be unfriendly to the US with Regis hitting the post in the 73rd minute. The final sub came in nine minutes later when Maisonneuve entered for Dooley.
Maisonneuve: Before my name was called, I thought for sure another attacker was going to be in — it wasn’t going to be me. And then when I got the call to warm up and then [Sampson] told me my role to go kind of in the back but play in front of [the center-back]. I’ve never played in the back line, but I was supposed to be in midfield.
With the US pushing forward, Iran struck for a second goal via a counterattack through Mehdi Mahdavikia. Brian McBride pulled a goal back for the US, but it wasn’t enough.
Wynalda: When Dooley did in fact come out and we made a decision to go for it and they put Maisonneuve in, the entire bench looked down at me and Brad Friedel says, “If you got on an airplane right now, we’d all understand.” It’s just a line that I’ll never forget. And I untied my shoes and sat at the end, moved myself to the end of the bench and just sat there cross-armed. I was thrilled when Brian [McBride] scored [to make it 2-1 in the 87th minute] because it gave us a chance, but man, I would have cut off a pinky to be out there for that last 10 minutes.
Sampson: At some point, I needed to put Eric Wynalda on the field, even though Eric Wynalda coming into the World Cup was not physically not 100%. I saw it in the Germany match.
Keller: I remember going back to Leicester and [manager] Martin O’Neill even saying, “Why did you guys stop playing so direct into McBride? You guys were killing them.” And then we stopped doing what was successful. I think there was still this thought process that we have to play a particular way, as opposed to playing what was being successful.
Not only had the U.S. lost, but with Germany and Yugoslavia tying 2-2, the Americans were already eliminated.
Keller: For me, having 102 caps, 600-plus professional games, it’s one of the most tough-to-swallow results I ever had. It made it even more difficult because we should have, given the way we played, we should have beat them. Even with all the issues we were having internally, we still kicked the s— out of Iran and somehow found a way to lose.
Jones: It’s funny, if I put that ball in the net and the upper V from 30 yards out, it would’ve been a goal. That’s what I think about. There’s so many woulda-couldas in the situation, but you have to put the ball in the net. From my perspective, when you lose, you definitely have a negative viewpoint. So, even like you’re telling me like, “Oh, we had so many chances.” That’s not the way I remember it. I remember it as a disappointment. Now, is that skewed? Yeah, of course. Just over time and losing the game and what that meant for us pretty much being done. It doesn’t sit as like, “Oh, we were so close.”
Sampson: It just wasn’t our day. You see that in all sports and big games where one team is completely dominating and it’s just not going over the line. Getting to the line, getting to the post, getting to the crossbar, creating chances, having great possession. But it not being your day.
Wynalda: We didn’t know how much the game meant to Iran until it was over. They were crying. We knew we were out, so we were dealing with [our] own demons but to watch them celebrate — I know I shouldn’t say this, but there was something beautiful about it. And they deserved it.
Talebi: Fortunately, everything was as we expected from start to finish. And I’m happy to have finished that way because we are friends and I am here [living in the United States] close to 40 years. I have American friends. I am here. I haven’t done anything wrong and they didn’t treat me as a foreign person. They treated me as people who are living here. I believe most of the Iranian people, they don’t have any problem with the United States. They want to be friends.
Ramos: I actually ended up playing with Mohammad Khakpour, who I think was their captain that day. He and I ended up being teammates in MLS later on, and he was a super guy. We talked about this game a few times, while we were playing together afterwards.
With the US team’s World Cup over, months of frustration came pouring out, with players unloading on Sampson in the media.
Lalas told reporters at the time: “If this was the master plan, good god, it was pretty masterful. [Sampson’s] got a weird definition of a master plan.” Ramos added: “[The coaches] didn’t get the most out of what we had. For me, I’m 31 now, but I can tell you as long as Steve Sampson and [assistant coach] Clive Charles are around, I don’t want any part of the national team.”
Jones: I would say there was a rebellion in that a lot of players were just unhappy with the situation and that’s naturally going to happen. Look, you have a lot of top talent, with a lot of pride, and when you’re already out of the tournament before the last game, it just lends itself to a volatile situation. A lot of players weren’t happy, a lot of players were very outspoken about it. I guess they felt the freedom or the license to be vocal and criticize where they felt things went wrong.
Balboa: It was a matter of time that someone was going to go to the paper, somebody was going to say something. It was not what we expected when we went to the World Cup. A lot of things happening, from the Harkes thing to a lot of other things, and I think we had come-to-Jesus talk after that with the coaching staff. Some players got in trouble for going to the media and talking and basically a tongue-lashing after that game, which we thought was kind of silly.
Keller: You have an amateur in charge. By appeasing these guys, that’s going to help you? And then all it does is destroy somebody else, and then they come out. It just was not managed well with a group of people that weren’t going to do what was best for the team. They were going to do what was best for them.
Lalas: Once it’s done, and there’s not only the failure, there’s the embarrassment, anger, internally and externally. I can’t imagine what it would have been like in the age of social media. I think it was all of those things that had been certainly kept away from the public to a certain extent, just bubbled up.
As strange as this sounds, it comes from a good place. It comes from all of us, realizing that we had wasted an opportunity, and realizing that we were better than what we wish we had shown.
Also, I think that from my perspective, and others’ perspectives, it was needless. It didn’t have to be that way. Maybe that’s naive on my part and certainly, I guess, arrogant or egotistical to think that if we had participated more and been involved more, that things would have been different. But that’s part of what being athletes are: being egomaniac narcissists.
Sampson: Almost every one of them to a tee have apologized and that they would have handled things a lot differently. Alexi Lalas being the one who spoke out the most in fact, he’s told me that two or three times since then that he handled it very poorly, they would have done it differently. I think their behavior affected the chemistry of the team, it was incredibly disruptive.
As deflating as the loss was, and with elimination guaranteed, there was still another game to play against Yugoslavia. The match had its own political overtones due to NATO’s bombing campaign against Bosnian Serb military positions in 1995 during the Bosnian War. But the US team was in shambles at this point, and fell 1-0.
Ley: Until the day I die, I will remember during the playing of the US national anthem. [Color commentator] Seamus Malin nudged me and says, “Look over there.” There had to be 10,000 Yugoslavians in one end, with their upraised middle fingers in the air. Politics surrounded that match as well, but nobody remembers it as much because it didn’t have the cache, if you will, of the Iran-USA match.
There is a school of thought that what happened in 1998 set the stage for the US team’s run to the quarterfinals in 2002. There was certainly no shortage of lessons learned.
Lalas: What would I do differently? Part of me says, just being a better, more supportive type of teammate. It’s a World Cup, and nobody’s going to say no to a World Cup. But I probably wasn’t the best person to have at the World Cup. The group is so important. If Steve had to pick that group again, I don’t think someone like myself would have gone and it would have been completely understandable and right for him to do that. So, if I did it over again, I think I just would have not let my situation or others’ situations infect the proceedings and therefore be a part of wasting that opportunity.
Ramos: I’m sort of disappointed with the narrative of that World Cup having been such a failure. Of course, when you lose all three games, that’s not something that you want to see. And I think that Steve Sampson and maybe the tactical adjustments that he made going into the World Cup, I think every player will tell you that they came out of nowhere and they were at the last minute.
Having said all that, we were going to lose two games no matter what in that World Cup. We were not going to beat Germany, we were not going to beat Yugoslavia. These were two major competitors that had the possibility of winning the World Cup. The thing that made it a difficult World Cup was the fact that the Iran game was going to go either way and it didn’t go our way and knocked us out. And the fact that it knocked us out in the second game just kind of made it a failure because we were out before even really playing the third game.
Preki: It was a disappointment for the group, for the country, for all of us. We understood the moment, we understood the weight of the moment and what that means for us as a country, and obviously the country that at that time is just starting to make strides in world football, making the World Cup on a more regular basis. It was disappointing because we all felt that we had a way better team than the results show.
Oral history of USA-Iran, 1998 World Cup: interviews, photos