Soccer is no longer considered merely a global sport, but also as unifying force whose virtues can make an important contribution to society. The power of Soccer is used as a tool of social and human development, by strengthening the work of dozens of initiatives around the globe to support local communities in the area of peace- building, health, social integration, education and more. The history of Soccer goes parallel to the history of the World, and sometimes Soccer matches have been more noted for the political significance than for their sporting importance.
Therefore, when the thirty- two qualified National teams were split in eight groups for the 1998 France World Cup and announced that the United States and Iran are in group F, the match between them was mentioned as “The most politically charged game in World Cup history”.(1) In this regard, many including the international community, U.S. government and the people of Iran hoped that this Soccer competition could break the ice between two countries and begin a new era of friendship and bilateral political relation.
Since Khatami’s so- called election (2) in 1997, the Clinton administration made all sorts of gestures to say they would like to improve relations. That is why; these efforts were compared to Ping- Pong diplomacy (3) during Nixon’s presidency that led to restoration of Sino- U.S. relation, which had been cut for more than two decades.
However, did these efforts really work? There is no doubt that the both political regimes of China and Iran are totalitarian and have some common similarities, nevertheless do they have same essence? Have the international community and U.S. government known the true essence and complicated structure of the Islamic regime after two decades? Moreover, is the Islamic regime interested like China in 1971 to re-build the political relation with U.S.?
Iran- U.S. relation is full of vicissitudes through out history. (4) Relations between the two nations began in the mid-to-late nineteenth century. Initially, while Iran (5) was very wary of British and Russian colonial interests during the Great Game, the United States was seen as a more trustworthy Western power, and the Americans Arthur Millspaugh (6) and Morgan Shuster (7) were even appointed treasurers-general by the Shahs (8) of the time. Before Millspagh and Shuster, Howard Conklin Baskerville (9) is a famous and respectful American teacher among Iranian who died fighting for Iranian democracy. He has been called the "American Lafayette in Iran”. Many Iranian nationalists revere Baskerville. Schools and streets in Iran have been named for him (10). During the Second World War, the United Kingdom from the south and the Red Army of Soviet Union from the north, both U.S. allies, invaded Iran. After the war, the Red Army did not leave Iran and planed to separate the province of Azerbaijan from Iran. On 24 April 1952, President Truman sent Stalin an ultimatum to pull his Army out of Iran and mentioned, “if you don't get out, we shall come". (11) This positive and friendly relation between the two Nations and Governments continued until the end of President Truman’s presidential term. From 1951 to 1953, the people of Iran and the elected and popular Prime Minister Dr. Mohammad Mosaddegh (12) struggled peacefully and through International organization for national sovereignty and oil industry Nationalization against British Oil Company. The Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC) Established by the British in the early 20th century, the company shared profits (85% for Britain, and 15% for Iran), but the company withheld their financial records from the Iranian government. American President Truman pressed Britain to moderate its position in the negotiations and not to invade Iran. American policies created a feeling in Iran that the United States was on Mosaddegh's side and gave Iran significant amounts of economic aid. In January 1953, President Harry Truman second term was in its final day and Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican was about to succeed him. At this time, Churchill, the British prime minister, convinced the Eisenhower administration that the only way to control Iran’s oil industry and confront communist activity in Iran is to overthrown Mosaddegh’s government. That is why, the MI6 and CIA planned successfully a coup d'état (13) in summer of 1953 which turned the history of Iran afterwards. The coup that Iranian cannot forget it, because they believe it stopped the process of democracy in Iran. It brought twenty- five years of dictatorship and oppression for the people of Iran, which led to a revolution that became Islamic. Stephen Kinzer in his book- All the Shahs Men- (14) argued that the 1953 coup against popular government of Dr. Mohammad Mosaddegh is the root of Middle East Terror. Nevertheless, the relation between Shah of Iran and U.S. in these twenty-five years was glorious and the Shah of Iran was the best U.S. allies in the Middle East.
When Iranians rose up for freedom and justice, Mullahs and Islamist were the only organized group in that time. Therefore, this group with support of Marxists who see the Shah as the symbol and representative of Imperialism in Iran could divert the freedom Movement of Iranian and that Uprising led to Islamic revolution and the domination of the Fundamentalists, reactionaries and the lowest social groups of Iranian. Only a few months later- on November 4, 1979-, a group of young fundamentalists occupied the U.S. embassy in Tehran and 52 Americans were held hostage for 444 days. Who was behind the scene and who took the advantages of this crises is still a matter of debate. At first glance, the people of Iran were the big loser and the Fundamentalist who eliminated the opponents inside Iran and the Republican that won the presidential election in U.S. were the winners (15). At this point, U.S. broke diplomatic ties with Iran, expelled Iranian diplomats, banned American exports to Iran and froze Iranian assets in U.S. From 1981(release of hostages) to 1997(so- called election in Iran and victory of Khatami) there are some direct conflicts and some behind the door dialogues between two countries (16). When Khatami with some twenty million votes became fifth president of Islamic regime in Iran, many inside and outside of Iran believed his promises during his presidential campaign. He promised a political reform and freedom inside Iran, and to defuse tension between Iran and the international community and called for dialogue among civilization (17). In first two years of his presidency and with great demands of Iranian and especially students and young generation for Change and freedom, Khatami could take some steps forward but this process was subverted. In the beginning, U.S administration welcomed this wind of change in Iran and showed different attitudes to start negotiation and re- building the broken political relation with Iran. In this regard, Sport and especially Wrestling and Soccer were the tools that they hoped could break the wall of mistrust and begin a new era.
When in December 1997 the draw for the World Cup pulled together the USA and Iran in Group F, the World experienced different reactions and mostly positive.
In U.S., the reactions were positive and many who were concerned with Politics or Soccer welcomed this competition. It was discussed, since with Soccer neither of country was particularly successful, it protected both countries from great defeats that might hurt national pride and become humiliating (18). They compared this competition with Ping- Pong diplomacy which re- builds the China- U.S. relation. In Iran, there were some different approaches. The common people who believe strongly in Conspiracy theory said that it was the time for change. They argued that the invisible hands (including bankers, Oil company owners and secret Think- Tanks) which control the whole world manipulated the World Cup Draw that Iran and U.S. play against each other and it would lead to diplomatic relation. Many including intellectuals, students, women activists, liberal parties and Exiled Iranian hoped that the competition could help to break the ice and would start a direct and positive dialogue based on mutual respect and bilateral interests. The third group was the hardliners including the leader of the regime- Khamenei. In the beginning they kept quiet and then started to chant regular slogans against U.S., Imperialisms and western community and mentioned, “It is the Will of God (!) that the troops of Islam (!) defeat the troops of Satan (!) and imperialism in the field of Soccer”(19) and promised a glorious victory in coming June.
On Wednesday, June 10, 1998 began the 16th FIFA World Cup in Paris (20). Both U.S. and Iran National Team lost their first matches, therefore the importance of the competition increased. U.S. Soccer Federation President described the match as “the mother of all games”. President Bill Clinton sent message to the teams and supported Soccer Diplomacy. President Clinton had said that the United States and Iranian Soccer teams, which play each other in the World Cup on Sunday, could help end the estrangement between two countries. He said Washington wanted a genuine reconciliation based on mutual understanding. This would require the Iranians to move away from their support of terrorism and their opposition on the Middle East peace process (21). Earlier, Iran’s government welcomed what it called the “positive tone” of an American offer to start a new relationship; 18 years after diplomatic tie with Islamic Republic were broken. This response came from the Iranian ambassador to United Nation- Hossein Nejad Hosseinian- in an Iranian television interview. He said that Iran was now awaiting "concrete action" from the United States on its proposals. The ambassador was speaking in reply to the American Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, who had offered to explore new ways of improving links with Iran. In a speech in New York, Mrs. Albright said it was time to look at the options of bridging the gap between the two countries(22). American officials said the speech was intended to develop the slight thaw in relations since moderate President Mohammad Khatami came to power in Iran last August. I think this was the most conciliatory speech by American Secretary of States and Iranian official’s response in nearly two decades.
However, this was not the whole story before the match has started. The leader of Islamic regime made one of the tensions. It was over the trivial matter of shaking hands. Team A was the U.S. and Team B was Iran, meaning according to FIFA rules the Iranian Team was due to walk towards the American before shaking hands. That was until the leader of Islamic regime Khamenei gave express orders that under no circumstances were the Iranian to walk towards their American counterparts. The matter was eventually settled but the issue was one of the matters that indicated in Iran there are different decision makers and any of them can sabotage other efforts. FIFA had done its best to keep the politic out of the game on the field, but had no control over what went on off the field. One of political brush fire (23) broke out before the match was ugly incident of the France hospitality when one of the televisions broadcast the movie “Not without my daughter”. This controversial movie grimly depicted life in Iran under the laws of religious fundamentalist. The Iranian Soccer Federation has field a protest with Soccer’s World governing body over the timing of the broadcast. Jalal Talebi- the head coach of Iran- called the movie “insulting” and accused the privet French network that broadcast it of deliberately trying to roil political waters and added, “ In the World Cup, every one speaks of unity, love and togetherness, and somebody shows this film. Nobody can benefit”. Then off the pitch an Iraqi- based terrorist organization- Folks mojahedin(24))- bought 7000 tickets with the attempts to hijack the game. However, under strict instruction, TV camera- men avoided airing the offending protesters. Indeed, it was the most controversially event in 1998 World Cup. Hugh dauncey and Geoff Hare mentioned in the book “France and The 1998 world cup” (25) that the security failed for England- Germany, but worked for Iran- USA. They continued, this match was a major test for security and the French authorities and Television coverage did the best to prevent the game from becoming a propaganda event for this specific opponent of the Iranian regime. (26)
The game itself was surprisingly sportsman like. Both side presented another with gifts and flowers and stood together for a photograph before the match kicked off. Iranian intentionally chose white rose as a symbol of peace in Iran.
Then the Swiss referee blew the whistle for the start of the probably the most political charged match in the history of World Cup. The game was everything the Iranians could have hoped for. Ii was a competitive, full- blooded but fair contest. The new arrangement of Sampson- the U.S. head coach- for this game brought more energy for U.S. to attack, and to put Iran on their heels. Sampson’s all- offence concept started off well enough, particularly with tree good scoring chances in first 15 minute. However, Iran began to counter-attack. Both teams cancelled each other and the ball traveled all over the pitch, and suddenly, around the twentieth minute, German bundesliga forward- Khodadad Azizi- created a dangerous one-on-one moment but Keller felled Azizi as he was about to enter the U.S. box. Surprisingly, the man in the middle from Switzerland who had to show Keller a red card remained neutral. Short before the end of first half, Javad Zarincheh played give-and-go outside the U.S box with Mahdavikia, carried the ball toward corner and crossed it past U.S sweeper Thomas Dooley. The ball found the head of midfielder Estili near the penalty spot, and he flicked a perfectly placed header shot into the upper-left corner of the goal. Estili ran down the field screaming after the goal. This euphoric celebration was reminiscent of Tardeli’s (27) when he scored in 1982 World Cup final. In the second half, the U.S. had to put more pressure to get an equalizer as the match intensity grew. The Iranians fought hard, stood well in defense, and was increasingly dangerous on their counter-attacks with their quick strikers. In one of the counter-attack, Mahdavikia ran onto U.S. field with no one between him and goalkeeper Kasey Keller. Defender David Regis could not catch Mahdavikia before he entered the box and fired a shot into the right corner past a diving Keller. Only three minutes before time the Columbus Crew striker, Brian McBride scored on a diving header. At the score 2-1 the Iranians were very nervous, and the Americans had some good chances. Nevertheless, the score held to the end of the match. This victory was very important for Iran, as it also represented their first World Cup victory ever. So many Iranians all over the world regarded this game as a way of regaining due respect.
The reactions to Iran’s victory were very interesting but no one did care about the negative ones from both sides. President Clinton who was in China at that time, said that the U.S. defeat was very bitter but they beat us in a fair play (28). Jeff Agoos- the U.S. defender said,” we did more in 90 minutes than the politician do in 20 years”. One who missed the point of the game was Brent Musberger of ABC TV that proudly proclaimed “Three-nil, American all the way, BABY” before the match and during it pronounced Iran as “Ear-rrrrrrrrrraan”, said finally,” you beat us in Soccer, so what? We can still carpet bomb your country in three days”. The leader of Islamic regime sent message to the people of Iran and repeated the ordinary slogans of the regime’s leadership in last two decades. However, the Iranians reaction was extraordinary, feared the Islamic Regime and brought great joy to the streets in all around the Iran (29). The happiness in unhappy society. The happiness, that kept behind the closed doors in last two decades. Hundreds of Thousands of young people partied in the streets in defiance of government warning. It was good excuse for boys and girls to mix and dance, and in a way, it was political, because it was a demand for social change. It was the night when nobody slept and the regime could just watch the explosion of passion and defeat of its cultural revolution that it has been sought since 1979. It also brought Iranian around the World altogether. There were a lot of expatriate Iranian all over the world who hate the regime, nevertheless cheered the National Team.
This match proved the U.S. Administration and the Iranian government that Sport and especially Soccer could be used as a tool to break the mistruth wall between to countries. Hence, the two Soccer Confederations agreed to hold two friendly matches first in California and the in Tehran. Consequently, in January 2000, U.S. and Iran played before a lively pro-Iranian Rose Bowl crowed of 50000 in the first meeting on domestic soil. Iran scored the first goal by Mehdi Mahdavikia in the 7th minute U.S equalized by Chris Armas in 48th minute.
Only a few months later the leader of Islamic regime and his cliques, who were afraid of powerful demands of social and political change inside Iran, and détente with outside World, disabled the so-called reformist and moderate Government of Khatami. First, with the tool of judiciary system, 80 newspapers and magazines were prohibited in only one day and imprisoned tens of journalists with this Leader’s argument that the Papers became the enemies’ base in Iran. Then some reformer members of Parliament sentenced to jail. They even banned some parties whose members had got important roll in regime since the revolution but disagreed with the dictatorship of the leader. In this process, the president of regime announced that he had no more influence, and the Country is controlled by others (he was afraid to mention whose persons or which organs).
That is why Soccer diplomacy, which many compared with Nixon’s Ping- Pong diplomacy being forgotten. However, how did work Ping- Pong diplomacy and did not work Soccer diplomacy? Was it the matter of Sports, diplomatic approaches, the leadership or the structure of regimes? Nixon’s Administration verses Clinton’s. Mao leadership verses Khamenei!
Since Sport diplomacy may transcend cultural differences and bring people together, Ping-Pong, Soccer, Wrestling, Boxing and Cricket are examples that were applied from time to time to serve that goal.
Nixon Administration knew that Mao Zedong was still the most powerful man in China, supported the Prime Minister- Zhou Enlai- and only some voices in Communist Party- including Mao’s wife- could interrupt the reconciliation process.
Regarding Iran, Clinton Administration counted too much on President Khatami who won the election with some twenty million votes that showed the potential of the society for political reform and even radical change. Nevertheless, they underestimated two important factors. First were the feeble character of Khatami and his fear of change that could lead to the collapse of Islamic regime. Second factor was and still is the roll of leader of the regime- Ali Khamenei.
From the dawn of the revolution, the leadership of the Islamic regime has always been afraid to be overthrown whether from the people of Iran or west powers. Because they know that the demand for freedom, democracy and justice are very much powerful inside Iran and the achievement of these demands in the Islamic system is impossible. Islam itself is a discriminating religion. It discriminates non-Moslems in favor of Moslem and woman in favor of man, etc. Furthermore, in such system, there must be only one legitimate voice and view to keep such ideological system alive that is totally in contrast with freedom and democracy. At the same time, they are afraid to be overthrown by western power and especially U.S government. That is why they should control and when it is needed eliminate the voices inside; and if they want to normalize and reconcile the relation with U.S., they ask for security assurance. The Nixon administration could give China such assurance regarding the conflict matter with Taiwan. The Clinton administration on the other hand, could not offer the regime of Iran such assurances. One reason is the behaviors of the Islamic regime that violet the international peace and security. Then, the Israel and its powerful lobby’s in U.S. Not only does not Israel agree with the reconciliation of U.S. – Iran, but also request it the U.S. to attack Iran and destroys the Iranian nuclear facilities and its army bases. In this regard, the Nixon administration left its option open and could use all options that Clinton’s could not.
In comparison, the new evidence (30) on both sides (U.S. - China) bear out the shared Realpolitik logic that identified the Soviet Union as the more serious threat for each of them and reasoned that dampening mutual hostilities would allow each to concentrate on managing the Soviet’s threat as well as gaining additional leverage over them. On the contrary, such a question did not apply in the case of Iran.
The diolouge and political relation with U.S. was Taboo both in China and Iran. Nevertheless, Mao had already redefined the Imperialism toward Soviet as the “ Socialist Imperialist”. In Iran on the contrary, the definition of Imperialism remained the same since 1979 and the slogan of “ death to America” is repeated every Friday in the regime organized ceremony of “Friday pray”(30).
Furthetmore, The nixon administraition applied all possible tools to begin a new era with China and through which play the “china card” against Moscow even before the openning(31). On the other hand, The clinton administration applied the Carot and Stick policy toward Iran; The economic sanction continued and at the same time it showed various gesture to start negotiation.
The U.S administraion and the Islamic regime always emphesis on pre- condition to start the direct negotiation. The regime of Iran asked U.S. to free the Iran’s assets in America and not to interfere in Iran's internal affairs. U.S. asked Iran to stop the violation of Human Rights in Iran, to stop supporting the fundamentalist groups like Hamas and to recognize Israeil’s existance as a country and not violated the peace process between Palestain and Israel.
Finaly, the regime of Iran always needs an enemy to divert all attentions from mismanagments, coruption, violation of Human Rights, economic crisis and the poverty in one of the most richest countries in the world. The destructive weapone of religion as an idealogy that does not accept any reforms and is in contrast with the powerful and ancient Culture of Iran is getting more and more insuficient and only an outsider enemy and brutal and continous repression inside the country can keep this regime in power. Cosequently, which enemy is more legitimate than U.S. as the symbol of democracy in the world for the people of Iran and as the symbol of Imperialism, the enemy of Islam and moslems for the Islamic regime?
By: Nima Nasserabadi
2) In the Islamic Republic of Iran, there is actually any presidential election, but rather there is a selection. It means that the guardian council, whose members were elected by the un-elected leader of regime, selects a few candidates and these candidates can run for the presidency.
3) http://www.china.org.cn/english/features/olympics/100660.htm & http://www.historyinanhour.com/2011/04/10/ping-pong-diplomacy/ & also Melvin Small, A companion to Richard Nixon, 2011, Chapter Twenty- tree, Published by Blackwell Publishing
10) http://www.jadidonline.com/images/stories/flash_multimedia/Baskerville_tabriz_test/bas_high.html ( Documentary in Persian)
14) https://www.cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intelligence/csi-publications/csi-studies/studies/vol48no2/article10.html - Stephan Kinzer, All the Shah's Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror, 2003, published by John Wiley and son Inc., Hoboken, New jersey
15) In Iran, some political organizations and parties condemned the hostage taking, in spite of the fact that Khomeini (the so- called leader of revolution) supported that. At the same time, the hostage takers revealed and published hundreds paper of the U.S. embassy documents and claimed that some opposition figures were in contacts with U.S. and called them the spies of C.I.A. One of the most famous Iranian politicians who was imprisoned and is still in Islamic regime prison is the deputy prime minister Abbas Amir Entezam (http://www.entezam.org/ ).
16) 1986: Revelations emerge of an American deal to exchange arms for Iranian help in freeing hostages held in Lebanon (The Iran- Contra Affair): http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/general-article/reagan-iran/ .1988: The USS Vincennes mistakenly shoots down an Iran Air flight over the Persian Gulf killing 290 people. http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/july/3/newsid_4678000/4678707.stm . 1993: The United States implements a policy toward Iran and Iraq known as "dual containment" in an effort to isolate both countries and contain their regional ambitions.
17) http://edition.cnn.com/WORLD/9801/07/iran/interview.html . This Khatami’s slogan was in contrast with Samuel Huntington’s “The clash of Civilization”.
19) Abrar e Varzeshi, 1997- Iranian Sport News Paper
22) The New York Times, Jun 18, A, 1:1
23) Amy Shipely and Anne Swardson, The Washington post, Jun 19- C, 8:1,1998
25) Hugh Dauncey & Geoff Hare, France and the 1998 World Cup, 1999, Published by Frank Cass London- page 178
26) It is true that most of the Iranian is against the Islamic Regime in Iran. But at the same time, they are strongly opposed this Armed Terrorist Organization based in Iraq which was supported by former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hossein.
27) Jomhouri- Eslami, June 1998- Iranian News paper
28) The New York Times, Jun 21, 1998, VIII, 1:1
29) Melvin Small, A companion to Richard Nixon, 2011, Chapter Twenty- tree, Published by Blackwell Publishing
31) Dexter Perkins, The Diplomacy of new Age, 1967, Indiana University Press, Published by Bloomington and London