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Iranian political theorist and football fan Reza Parchizadeh responds to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s message to the Iranian people by recalling sporting events that the two countries held in the past.
Photo Credit: Youtube
May 19, 1968, the day Iran and Israel faced off in a major international event, seems to have been mostly forgotten in Israel. However, it is still passionately remembered in Iran, as it marked the decade-long rise of Iran to such universal prominence that has since been nostalgically revered as the Golden Age of Iranian football.
The football obsession in Iran is probably only comparable to that in South America, Mexico, Italy and Great Britain, and it officially starts with the Iran-Israel match of May 19, 1968. Here I am going to tell you the story of how that obsession started, and why it is much less harmful – and even salubrious and purifying at times – to cling to such obsessions if one cannot help but being obsessive.
By 1968, Israel had been at the top of the Asian football for almost a decade. They had been the runners-up to South Korea in 1956 and 1960 AFC Asian Cups, and finally managed to secure the cup by beating their old adversary in 1964 in Tel Aviv. But Israel had earned the championship dearly, through toil and sacrifice. The Israeli squad was composed of mostly poor native and migrant army conscripts and working class citizens who would skip much necessary bread-winning work to train for the tournament. A strong sense of purpose to uphold the honor of their young and constantly beleaguered nation would push them forward. They were intent upon defending their title.
On the other hand, Iran was still in the making. Football was still taking a back seat to the venerable and prestigious wrestling as the “national sport,” in which Iran would only be matched by Russia and later the United States. They had not participated in the 1956 Asian Cup, had not qualified in 1960, and had withdrawn from the 1964 tournament. 1968 would be their first entry to the Asian Cup, for which they did not have to go through the qualifying round as they hosted the event. As such, Iran’s greatest honor in football before 1968 had been the meager second place in the Asian Games of 1951 and 1966 as well as a weak appearance in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. They wanted their first title now.
But athletic issues were the lesser of two concerns, at least for some. As Arabs had recently clashed with Israel during the Six-Day War of 1967 and been soundly beaten by it, there were fears that sympathetic Communist and Islamist elements might want to bring harm to the Israeli sportsmen as a reprisal. Many years later, Ezzat Shahi, a terrorist, revealed in his memoirs that the Islamists had indeed intended to pull a stunt like what the Palestinian terrorist group Black September would later do during the 1972 Olympics in Munich, where eleven Israeli Olympic team members were taken hostage and eventually killed. However, as their final assessment had made it clear that the popular reaction in Iran would be negative and thus damage the Islamist cause, they had abandoned the plan. Shahi himself would later blow up the office of El Al (Israel Airlines) in Tehran. It was not for nothing that the security forces were on the alert.
It was amidst this atmosphere of politico-athletic tension and apprehension that the two teams came to stand face to face in the final match of the 1968 Asian Cup. The 30000-seat Amjadieh Stadium at the heart of Tehran had become full hours before the game began, with an equal number of people standing outside the arena and following the game via radio as well as through the reactions of the spectators inside. Many more – it has been said more than 15 million – would watch the match on TV. Tehran had come to a standstill, but for Amjadieh.
The first half passed without a major event. The two squads were assessing each other. It was Israel that delivered the first blow. At 56’ Giora Spiegel managed to score a goal for Israel following an opportunity created by Mordechai Spiegler, the top scorer of the previous tournament who had become something of a legend among Iranians. Spiegler had recently scored a crucial goal against Australia that made Israel qualified for its only World Cup appearance to this date. He would take Israel to the quarter-finals of Mexico City Olympics later that year and would go on to score Israel’s only goal in World Cup history against Sweden in the 1970 World Cup in Mexico.
Mahmoud Bayati, Iran’s coach, had his hands tied, as his top scorer, Homayoun Behzadi, who had been injured, was forced to sit that match out. The spectators were now unanimously calling for Behzadi. Bayati had no other choice but to send him in. Around half a century later, Behzadi would remember that he had been able to go in with the help of a couple of injections. Twenty minutes later (75’) he would bring Iran back to the game. But it was Parviz Ghelichkhani who would deliver the finishing blow (86’) after a couple of dribbles and an iconic long-distance shot that became his signature move since then. When the referee blew the final whistle, Amjadieh exploded.
Thus were Iran able to steal the championship from Israel. It would become the first in three consecutive Asian Cup championships (1968, 1972, and 1976), as well as ushering in an era of flourishing in other football venues such as the 1974 Asian Games, the Olympic games of Munich (1972) and Montreal (1976), all topped by Iran’s first qualifying for the final round of the World Cup in Argentina (1978), on the way to which Iran would knock out the splendid Australia, and would later give the tough Scotland a hard time, losing an honorable loss to the all-star-cast Netherlands.
Iran and Israel would face off one last time in the final match of the 1974 Asian Games (Asiad) in Tehran when Iran would win once again become the champions. Since then, things took a dramatically different turn for both that would mire all kinds of relations, not to mention sport events, between them up till now. As a consequence of the ongoing Arab-Israel struggle, Israel would be expelled from the AFC in 1974, since when Israel would lead a nomadic life for twenty years before it could finally find settlement with the UEFA in 1994. Israel would never achieve its former glory in football.
Iran, for its part, would start a steep decline as soon as the Islamists took over the country during the so-called Islamic Revolution of 1979, as political and ideological sea changes would prevent them from appearing on the international scene, and as the systematic anti-football purges would forever ruin the team melli (national team). Ghelichkhani, the hero of Amjadieh, was forced to flee the country after being branded as a dissident and “undesirable element.” Others were less fortunate. Some were executed, and those who escaped death turned into ghosts of their glorious past. The Golden Age had come to an abrupt and tragic end.
Nevertheless, I believe the example of May 19, 1968 proves that nations – like individuals – can let off the steam that quite naturally builds up between them in more healthy ways than wishing one another death and destruction, and occasionally acting upon those sinister wishes. In the end, I am highly confident that in the-not-distant future, when the nefarious Islamists are gone – and they are bound to go, we can expect to see Iran and Israel face off on the square once again, and share a kosher meal before they go home. Selah!
Photo Credit: Youtube