Glenn Crooks: Former Coach Steve Sampson Recalls Tensions with Iran at ’98 World Cup

Before the U.S. and Iran face off Tuesday in the 2022 World Cup, former head coach Steve Sampson remembers the last time the two teams played each other.

Jackie Kolgraf
November 28, 2022

Steve Sampson coach for the USA team in action during the World Cup 1st round match between USA (1) and Iran (2) at the Parc Olympique on June 21, 1998 in Lyon, France. (Photo by Simon Bruty/Anychance/Getty Images)

FIFA President Gianni Infantino made a plea to the 32 teams here in Qatar: Keep political messages and symbols out of the World Cup.

On Sunday, U.S. Soccer confirmed that it had purposely published a tweet on the official U.S. Men’s National Team account with an Iranian flag that excluded the Islamic Republic symbol in the middle of the flag.

The Federation chose to show “support for the women in Iran fighting for basic human rights.”

The tweet has since been removed after objections from the Iranian Federation and CNN among others have reported that Iran believes the U.S. should be banned from the World Cup.

The tension between the two nations is elevated by the U.S. gesture, and the trepidation on the sporting side is the potential distraction to the American coaches and players. U.S. Men’s National Team coach Gregg Berhalter told a press gathering on Monday that neither he nor the players were alerted to the tweet. “All we can do on our behalf is apologize — on behalf of the players and the staff,” said Berhalter. “It’s not something we are part of.”

Steve Sampson also experienced significant political disruptions in 1998, the last time the U.S. and Iran met in a World Cup, when Sampson was the head coach of the U.S. men.

“It was an incredible distraction,” Sampson said on Friday to our United Soccer Coaches group in Doha. “It was the big, bad enemy. Not necessarily the people but the two regimes.”

Steve Sampson World Cup

Steve Sampson addresses United Soccer Coaches

Most notable was the Iran hostage crisis that bridged 1979-81, where 52 Americans were detained by militants for 444 days. Also, there was the attack on the American embassy in Iran, plus American support of Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war.

Closer to that World Cup clash in France, the U.S. imposed sanctions of materials used for weapons by Iran while levying an oil and trade embargo.

It was an extremely hostile relationship.

“It was a challenge to keep the players focused,” said Sampson.

The U.S. had come off a 2-0 loss to the No. 2 team in the world, Germany, and Sampson told us about some of the specific pre-match interferences.

“We had a joint picture before the game — a complete departure from FIFA protocol,” said Sampson, providing Spanish radio commentary in Doha.

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The Iranian players also presented the U.S. players with white roses as a symbol of peace.

“I’ve reflected on this for years,” said Sampson. “If I had to do it all over again, I would not have allowed the exchange of roses or the joint picture.”

What Sampson learned later and shared with us on Friday was startling. With Iran ahead at the interval, 1-0, Iran coach Jalal Talebi told Sampson that every player had their passports confiscated by Iranian government officials. They were advised that if they did not win the match, they would not be allowed back in the country and their families would not be permitted to leave Iran — presumably, Iranian players would never see their families again.

However, the officials added that if they were victorious, each player would get a new home.

“All they cared about was beating us because of the politics,” said Sampson. “Looking back, I have sympathy for them. Every single one of their players were risking their lives and the lives of their family.”

Looking ahead to Tuesday’s clash, can Berhalter and the second-youngest team among the 32 squads in Qatar overcome the political rumblings off the field to perform and advance in the 22nd World Cup?

“Anything can be done on any given day against anybody,” said Sampson.

Glenn Crooks is a host on the SiriusXM FC channel and the former head coach of the Rutgers University women’s soccer team.

Don’t miss special coverage of the 2022 FIFA World Cup on SiriusXM, including the Iran/U.S. game on November 29 at 2pm ET. English-language broadcasts of all matches from the highly anticipated tournament will be provided by FOX Sports with broadcasts airing primarily on FOX Sports on SiriusXM (Ch. 83). When two matches are occurring simultaneously, one match will air on SiriusXM FC (Ch. 157).

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