When the Islamists Are Gone, Israel and Iran Will Let Off Steam Again — on the Soccer Field
May 19, 1968 — the day Iran and Israel faced off in a major international event — seems to have been mostly forgotten in the Jewish state. Yet that day is still passionately remembered in the Islamic Rebublic, because it marked the decade-long rise in Iran of a golden age of Iranian football.
The football obsession in Iran is probably only comparable to that of South America, Mexico, Italy and Great Britain — and it officially began with the Iran-Israel match of 1968.
By 1968, Israel had been at the top of the football world for almost a decade. The Israelis had been the runners-up to South Korea in the 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 a motley crew 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’s football triumph was still in the making. Football still trailed wrestling as the “national sport.” The Iranian soccer team had not participated in the 1956 Asian Cup, had not qualified in 1960 and had withdrawn from the 1964 tournament. 1968 would be its first entry to the Asian Cup, for which it did not have to go through the qualifying round — because it hosted the event. Iran’s greatest honor in football before 1968 had been its meager second place showing in the Asian Games of 1951 and 1966.
But athletic issues weren’t the only concern during the tournament.
As the Arabs had recently been soundly defeated in the 1967 Six-Day War, there were fears that sympathetic Communist and Islamist elements might want to harm the Israeli athletes. 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.
However, they eventually abandoned the plan. Shahi himself would later blow up the office of El Al in Tehran, so security forces were right to be on the alert.
It was amidst this atmosphere that the two teams came to stand face to face in the final match of the 1968 Asian Cup. The 30,000-seat Amjadieh Stadium in the heart of Tehran was packed to the brim, with many overflowing into alternate viewing areas. Many more — up to 15 million people — would watch the match on TV.
The first half of the game passed without a major event, with Israel taking a one goal lead.
Mahmoud Bayati, Iran’s coach, was in an awful situation. His top scorer, Homayoun Behzadi, had been injured, and was forced to sit that match out. But the spectators were now unanimously calling for Behzadi. Bayati had no other choice but to send him in (with the help of some medical intentions).
Twenty minutes later, he would bring Iran back into the game. But it was Parviz Ghelichkhani who would deliver the finishing blow after a couple of dribbles and an iconic long-distance shot that became his signature move. When the referee blew the final whistle, Iran had emerged victorious.
It would become the first of three consecutive Asian Cup championships for Iran (1968, 1972, and 1976), culminating in Iran’s first time qualifying for the final round of the World Cup in Argentina (1978).
Iran and Israel would face off one last time in the final match of the 1974 Asian Games in Tehran, when Iran would win once again and become the champions.
As a consequence of the ongoing Arab-Israeli struggle, Israel would be expelled from the AFC in 1974, and would never achieve its former glory in football.
Iran’s team, for its part, began 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 program. Some players were forced to flee as political “dissidents.” Others were less fortunate. Some were executed, and those who escaped death turned into ghosts of their glorious former selves. The golden age of Iranian soccer 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 in more healthy ways than wishing each another death and destruction. In the end, I am highly confident that in the not-so-distant future, when the nefarious Islamists are gone, we can expect to see Iran and Israel face off once again, and share a kosher meal before they go home.
A version of this article was originally published by Jerusalem Online.