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‘You better win’: The time I played Iran in international soccer

In 2005, I was a political officer at the U.S. Embassy in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.

The Uzbek Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) sent around a diplomatic note announcing that the annual diplomatic soccer tournament was to be played in two months’ time. This mini-World Cup was to be played by aging diplomats and their younger more athletic staff. As I was the only American diplomat who played soccer, I was named co-captain of our team, a team featuring mainly our local guard force. Ulugbek, or Bek, was the other co-captain. Bek supervised the guards. 

As the tournament drew near, Bek and I drove over to the MFA one sunny spring afternoon for the tournament draw. There were many embassies in Tashkent, with Russians, Iranians, Germans, Ukrainians, Japanese, Kazakhs, Italians and others crowding the room.

After introductions, an Uzbek official opened the draw with a speech in Russian about fair play and outlining the general rules for this seven per side, short field, small goal soccer. He then began the draw, reaching into a jar and pulling out a small piece of paper and saying “Israel.”  Setting the paper aside, he reached in again and pulled out another piece of paper and said “Iran.”         

Immediately an outcry ensued in Farsi, Hebrew and Russian. The rest of the room was silent as the Uzbeks, Iranians and Israelis argued it out. Iran refused to play Israel since “it is not a country.” The Uzbek official put the two papers back in the jar and restarted the draw. He reached into the jar again and pulled out a paper and said “Iran.” 

The room was tense. Who would be next? He reached into the jar and pulled out the paper and said “USA.” The room was silent. The Uzbek official looked around awkwardly.   

I wasn’t pleased about this; everyone turned to look at me and the Iranians. I looked over at the Iranians, but we exchanged no words, as technically we aren’t supposed to speak. The Uzbeks, ever so polite, asked if this match up was “khorosho,” or ok. I stood and said I would make a phone call; the Iranians nodded their head in agreement, as did the Uzbek official. All diplomats are familiar with having to call their superiors. 

I stepped outside and called our ambassador. I explained the Israel-Iran draw, that the room was tense and the Uzbeks embarrassed. He asked me what I thought we should do, and I said that given what had already transpired, let’s go with the draw and play Iran. He said, “You better win” and hung up.  

Coming back into the room, I said we accepted the draw. The Iranians seemed surprised and huddled among themselves before making their decision to accept. I suppose the Iranians could not deny that the “Great Satan” did exist. The Uzbek official quickly continued the draw.   

As the tournament began the next week, the Russians and the Ukrainians played a violent game with both teams bringing in ringers from Russia and Ukraine to play. Neither team won. Another country’s team also had some players I didn’t recognize. I asked my young counterpart whom I knew well in which department these young soccer studs worked. He looked down and muttered something about “the IT department.” Sure.  

As we lined up to start our match with Iran, it was surreal. I was playing soccer against a team whose country 25 years prior had taken over our embassy and held captive dozens of my colleagues for over a year. It was a rough first half, not a lot of good soccer but plenty of bad fouls. The first half ended 0-0.  

As we took the field for the second half, we had the kickoff. I was playing forward along with Bek. Without moving his lips, Bek whispered, “just roll the ball forward an inch.” The whistle blew. I rolled the ball forward. Bek took a kick and launched it through the Iranian squad and just over the right shoulder of the lanky Iranian goalkeeper who only had time to move his head to watch the ball whizz past. Goal.  

The goal was tremendous. The Iranians were furious. The ensuing 20 minutes were some of the hardest, roughest soccer I’ve ever played. In the end, we held them off and won, 1-0. 

As the USA prepares to take on Iran again, the same words from the ambassador apply: “You better win.”  

Michael W. Gray is a foreign service officer with the Department of State. The views expressed here are his own.

Tags FIFA World Cup Iran Iranian regime Iran–United States relations U.S.-Iran relations United States Uzbekistan World Cup

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