In the homes that Gio Reyna, the gifted USA and Borussia Dortmund winger, grew up in, there were plenty of souvenirs, mementos from his father, Claudio’s own glittering career as a footballer.
Photos, prizes, jerseys exchanged, although not the shirt from one of the most famous international fixtures Reyna senior took part in: Iran versus America, in Lyon, France at the 1998 World Cup.
For reasons Claudio later explained, as simply being “in shock, dazed” after a dramatic last 10 minutes of a highly-charged clash, he had not, unlike most players, swapped shirts with an opponent after the final whistle.
And because it was Iran versus USA, a match weighted with just as much geopolitical baggage in the 1990s as it is today, there was speculation there may have been an extra motive behind the non-swapping of shirts.
“There was no disrespect intended,” Reyna shrugged at the time. “Nothing was going through my head. I was kind of speechless.”
By then, so many thousands of words had been uttered about everything surrounding the first Iran-USA match, that every gesture was being interpreted. The routine possibility that a beaten player might just be exhausted, alone in his thoughts, as Claudio Reyna was that June day at the Stade Gerland, needed spelling out.
The USA had been narrowly beaten, 2-1, with the outcome in suspense until the Swiss referee Urs Meier blew the final whistle. Iran carried a 1-0 lead into half-time thanks to Hamid Estili’s well-taken header, but for all their effectiveness on the counter-attack, Iran never felt utterly in command.
The USA side saw three efforts ping off the frame of Iran’s goal in the course of the contest. Even when Mehdi Mahdavikia’s thumping finish doubled the lead with six minutes left, Brian McBride, the American centre-forward, pulled a goal back in the 87th minute.
So much for the basic timeline of the contest itself. The preamble to a meeting of two nations who had severed political relations since the end of the 1970s, had crackling tensions and some unorthodox twists.
The French authorities deployed 150 armed security personnel to the Stade Gerland and its surroundings. Meier proposed that, instead of the two teams lining up in turn to shake hands – a gesture resisted by the Iranian government – the two sets of players pose together for a group photo before kick-off. That image of Iran and USA players interspersed, standing and kneeling, would be one of the many that would define the day.
As for what was at stake, the circumstances were not unlike today’s Iran-USA clash in Qatar, with elimination from the tournament facing the loser. But at France 98, Iran-USA was the second group game, not the third, and both teams had lost – to Yugoslavia and Germany respectively – on match day one.
The favourites in ‘98? Hard to call, although there were voices in the USA camp who, while careful to avoid too many overtly political remarks, sounded chest-thumpingly bullish ahead of kick-off. Iran had qualified for the finals, after a 20-year absence from World Cups, through a play-off, decided in their favour late in the tie, against Australia.
“Iran are lucky to be in France,” the USA striker Earnie Stewart told reporters.
He would come to regret that remark as Iran’s superior finishing pushed the USA to the bottom of the group.
“The Americans lost because they were the more naive team,” reported Le Monde, the French newspaper. Jalal Talebi, Iran’s head coach – who had lived for several years in California, and coached in schools and colleges there – acknowledged the USA “dominated at times”.
The loss hurt. Several American players were fighting back tears after the whistle, Reyna lost in his thoughts, “in shock”.
Partly that was because the USA had hoped the 1998 World Cup would mark their progress as a rising football force.
Four years earlier, they had reached the last 16, hosting a World Cup. The MLS, the country’s new professional league was promising a pathway for the vast numbers of youth footballers across the country. But the verdict from the 1998 World Cup, where the USA lost all their matches, was that there was a long way still to travel.
Nearly a quarter of a century on, the USA have since reached a World Cup quarter-final, two last-16 stages, but find themselves, as in 1998, with a point to make because another staging of a World Cup is imminent.
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The MLS now attracts global stars, albeit those generally at the ends of their careers, and, more importantly, produces a stream of young talent. The generation of Americans whom Talebi, the much travelled architect of Iran’s win in Lyon, was coaching as kids, have a better platform on which to thrive as professionals.
And a young looking USA team will take the field against Iran today, Gio Reyna among the starlets.
He and his contemporaries need, as in 1998, to shake off suggestions of naivety, and, to stay in this World Cup, to win against opponents have shown Qatar 2022 periods of brilliance – in beating Wales – but also brittleness, losing 6-2 to England.
Iran-USA is again a fixture in danger of being suffocated by the political theatre around it. But if it provides the suspense of that meeting in Lyon, the football will quickly demand everybody’s attention.