1254 GMT August 18, 2022
The former central defender told the-afc.com all about that historic tournament in France and what he expects from Iran in the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022.
When the players from Iran walk out to face the United States in one of the most anticipated fixtures of November’s Finals in Qatar, FIFA World Cup veteran Mohammad Khakpour will offer up one piece of advice: “Be yourselves.”
The former defender knows all about the pressures his compatriots will face in the build-up to that high-profile encounter in Doha on November 29 having experienced something similar himself.
Back in 1998, when the two rivals were drawn to meet one another in France, Khakpour was at the heart of the Iranian team that picked up an historic 2-1 win over in Lyon that remains a landmark moment for football in the nation.
“It was a great opportunity for us and at the same time it was very surprising because we had never seen some of the stuff that we did in 1998,” Khakpour told the-afc.com about his nation’s qualification for the FIFA World Cup.
“That was a great point for us, to show the whole world that we are a peaceful people. We were there to play football, we have talented kids who can play in the world after the World Cup, which they did.”
The Iranians were making their first FIFA World Cup appearance in 20 years after booking their berth in France in the most dramatic fashion, becoming the last nation to qualify by edging Australia in a playoff on the away goals rule.
That night in Melbourne created global headlines, with late goals from Karim Bagheri and Khodadad Azizi overturning a two-goal second leg deficit at a sold-out MCG Stadium to break the hearts of the Socceroos and end Team Melli’s FIFA World Cup exile.
Matters only became more intense when, at the draw in Marseilles two weeks later, Khakpour and his team mates were grouped together with Yugoslavia, Germany and the United States.
The meeting in Lyon would become a focal point of global attention in the lead-up to the Finals in France.
“The way we qualified was really dramatic,” said Khakpour. “We had lots of ups and downs to get there, which has two faces.
“The first one, if you qualify regularly without going through all those obstacles then no one would have known about us, we’d have been a normal team that was coming to the World Cup and nobody would have been talking much about us. But that journey took us to the point which the whole world was looking for the last team to be in 1998.
“The other one is that in Melbourne we didn't realise what we had done. We were in shock and we were just happy, but after a few days or weeks we realised what we did for our people, that 75 million people are united because of that game and because of that qualification regardless of ideology or beliefs.
“All Iranians all around the world were united because of football. That was so, so important for every player who played for that team. That made us become a historic team and still, every year, when that date comes they celebrate in Iran.
“I believe what we did and the chances we had to be part of that team is beyond imagination. What we did for the country was a great thing.”
The Iranians had undergone upheaval in the build-up to the tournament but still went to France confident of making an impact. Badu Vieira, who had overseen the Melbourne win, was gone and had been replaced by former FC Porto coach Tomislav Ivic. Ivic, however, lasted only a matter of months and was in turn supplanted by Iranian coach Jalal Talebi.
Despite the turbulence, Team Melli kicked off the tournament with a narrow 1-0 loss against the Yugoslavs with Sinisa Mihaljovic scoring from a free-kick that goalkeeper Nima Nakissa spilled into his own goal to further increase the need to win the US clash.
“We were under lots of pressure, but when we went to France we tried to control that by not having a lot of communication outside our camp,” said Khakpour.
“We knew it was important and we were ready for it. Personally as soon as I stepped on the field it was another game for me. I wasn’t thinking about the U.S., I was thinking about my responsibilities and what I have to do as a football player.”
A sold-out Stade de Gerland greeted the players and five minutes before the end of the first half Hamid Estili gave the Iranians the lead with a looping header. Mahdavikia doubled their advantage six minutes from time meaning Brian McBride’s late consolation could not deny the Iranians a famous victory.
“It was really important because it was the first win for Iranian football at a World Cup and on top of that we won against the U.S. That was making it really special,” added Khakpour.
“It gave us lots of joy and lots of pride because we were the first team in history to win a game for Iran and we were the first team in 20 years to play against the U.S. and we won. That made us proud and happy.”
The result meant Iranians went into their final game against Germany in Montpellier knowing a win over Berti Vogts’ side would see them advance to the next phase. However, goals from Oliver Bierhoff and Jurgen Klinsmann ended hopes of a second round place.
The country’s first FIFA World Cup appearance in more than a generation had come to an end, but for Khakpour new horizons opened up. Having previously played in his homeland for Pas and Persepolis plus a stint in Singapore with Geylang United, he finished his playing career in Major League Soccer in the United States with the MetroStars.
Khakpour, who now runs his own business after a stint coaching his nation’s U23 team in 2016, admits much has changed in the 24 years since his own FIFA World Cup adventure as the current squad prepare for games against England and Wales in Group B before the clash with the Americans.
“There’s a big difference between the team who played in 1998 and the team that’s going to play now,” said Khakpour. “That team that I played in, our team had not much international experience.
“But this team has lots of international experience, lots of these players are playing in teams in Europe and they’re playing against important players and they see these players at the World Cup in their clubs. It’s going to be a really different meeting compared to 1998.
“But my advice to the team is they shouldn’t think about the past, because this United States is not the United States we played in 1998. They are much better, with more experience."
“I believe these kids have to go to the World Cup and be themselves. It’s going to be difficult for them but they have experience and they know most of those players, they’ve probably played against them in the countries they’re playing in right now. We just have to see what’s going to happen.
“If you take England away, the other three teams have the same potential to go through to the second round. If the management can handle them better than others, then they can go to the second round.”