While watching the World Cup draw unfold at the Velodrome in Marseille, France, on Dec. 4, 1997, U.S. Soccer secretary general Hank Steinbrecher could not believe what he was seeing. The United States had been drawn in Group F with three-time world champion Germany, Iran and Yugoslavia.
"The first team drawn was Germany," said Steinbrecher. I thought ‘Oh wonderful, we've had two wars against them.’ The next team is Iran. I thought ‘Oh wonderful, we're still fighting about the hostages.’ Finally, we get Yugoslavia. And now I’m thinking ‘Well, we are bombing them.’ It was like the worst draw in the world."
The U.S.-Iran confrontation was one of the most eagerly awaited matches of France '98, giving a new meaning to the term “political football.”
A generation prior, those two countries collided on another playing field -- the Iranian hostage crisis, which started in 1979 and ended in early 1981.
The Iranians tried to shift the focus.
"The meaning of FIFA is peace and unity," said Dariush Mostafavi, then the president of the Iranian Soccer Federation. "I will not go into the political situation. The main thing is fair play. We are always peaceful.
"I think we are better than the U.S.," added Mostafavi, who should have known something about the United States. He received a graduate degree in engineering at the University of Texas after playing for Iran in the 1964 Olympics and the 1968 Asian Games. "I know the United States. I know they don't take this soccer seriously."
Steven Sampson, then the USA coach, showed he could be quite the international diplomat as he handled this situation as deftly as he could.
"It is only natural it will arouse an enormous amount of interest," said Sampson, whose contract was extended through France '98 two days prior to the draw. "It's a very difficult group. We have a number of players with experience playing in Germany. The United States could be the surprise of the tournament, and we have every expectation of being in the second round."
At this draw, FIFA needed 14 bowls filled with balls, and of course a host of soccer celebrities took part, including former French star Raymond Kopa, former Brazilian world champion coach Carlos Alberto Parreira and one-time West Germany coach and legend Franz Beckenbauer.
For the record, Kopa had the distinction of pulling the U.S. ball out of the pot.
This draw had a unique feel to it because at was held Dec. 4 following the World All-Star Game at the Velodrome. The Rest of the World, with Brazil's Ronaldo finding the back of the net twice and creating two other goals, rolled to a 5-2 victory against Europe in a game devoid of tackling in front of 38,000 shivering fans.
A number of fans climbed the fences surrounding the field and ran onto the pitch trying to get as close to their heroes as possible before they returned to the stands.
Before to the game, U.S. striker Eric Wynalda, a late replacement for injured defender Marcelo Balboa, went up to Jamaican forward Deon Burton and congratulated his counterpart on the Caribbean country reaching the World Cup for the first time. With a population of 2.6 million, Jamaica was the smallest of the 32 nations that played in France that summer.
"Congratulations, man," he told Burton. "We're really happy for you."
"Everyone's really excited," Burton told a reporter. "There's a party atmosphere at the moment. Flags are out. Everyone is in the mood for France."
Then again, some things never change. At least one coach complained about the seedings, which has become a draw tradition.
England coach Glenn Hoddle felt it was unusual for Italy, which finished second to his side in its European qualifying group, to be one of the eight seeded teams in accordance with FIFA's new seeding policy.
"The only thing that's strange and needs to be readjusted is these seeds who have come through the backdoor of the playoffs," he said.
Even for teams that had booked a berth in France for June, coaching mortality during qualifying still was quite high.
Entering this draw, three teams were looking for new coaches: Iran, Nigeria and Saudi Arabia.
Parreira, who was directing the New York/New Jersey MetroStars at the time, received an offer he could not refuse - a $3 million deal to lead Saudi Arabia that summer.
Nigeria decided to go with former U.S. National Team coach Bora Milutinovic, who had been fired by Mexico coach several weeks prior despite leading El Tri into the finals.
In fact, it has turned a tradition for Milutinovic to attend draws, sometimes looking for a job as a coach, scout or special advisor. Like Elvis Presley in the USA, there were a number of Bora sightings in Marseille, whether he was at the U.S. Soccer hotel, the hotel of a sportswriter, with the delegation of Iran or Nigeria, or on an airplane back to the states.
"Bora is like oxygen," ESPN broadcaster Seamus Malin said at the time. "He's everywhere."