Friday, December 2, 2022

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Wales vs. Iran: The only meeting of the World Cup opponents so far

The eyes of the world will be on Wales and Iran on Friday in Doha.

But the only time the two countries met, no one was looking in Wales and captain Terry Yorath and his team-mates wondered what on earth they had gotten themselves into.

The date was April 18, 1978, at the Aryamehr Stadium in Tehran.

American singer Frank Sinatra had performed there a few years earlier, but there’s no evidence the ruling royal family kept Sinatra waiting as long as the Wales football team.

“We couldn’t start the game until the Shah’s son arrived – he was two hours late,” Yorath told the Cymranian blog in 2021.

Former winger Mickey Thomas said: “I don’t remember the game anymore. But I remember a helicopter landing before the game and we were told the princes were there.

“The stadium was huge and we were blown away by the amount of the crowd. I think the official attendance was 50,000 but it looked closer to 80,000. We couldn’t believe it.”

The trip was also to be a culture shock off the pitch for Mike Smith’s side, despite having traveled to the Middle East for a goalless friendly against Kuwait seven months earlier.

Political tensions in Iran were high and protests against the Shah of Iran were spreading, while support for the exiled Ayatollah Khomeini was growing.

Within a year, the Shah, the last Persian monarch, had fled Iran and Khomeini had returned from Paris to become the country’s first supreme leader.

Wales had entered this political maelstrom almost unwittingly, spending four days in Tehran after an arduous journey from London via Turkmenistan.

The match had been arranged because the Shah’s son – a huge Liverpool fan – wanted to see a British team play at Aryamehr Stadium.

Midfielder Brian Flynn, who came on as a second-half substitute, said: “I’ve always loved travelling. It was great for me to go to a place like this.

“I remember this huge monument coming from the airport to Tehran – and I thought ‘this is different’. Some emigrants invited us to an event. We ate with them but didn’t go out much.”

The side soaked up some culture at Tehran’s Grand Bazaar before Wales won a hard-fought game 1-0.

The game was decided when Thomas, who would soon join Manchester United from Wrexham, fired into the box from the left flank.

Iran failed to clear their cross and a lucky rebound allowed Phil Dwyer to leap from six yards.

“I saw the goal on YouTube,” said Thomas. “There wasn’t much involved, but I can honestly say I didn’t know anything about her.”

Flynn remembers the moments after the final whistle more than the game itself.

He said: “The Iranians were keen to swap shirts with us after the game. They had these tops that looked like t-shirts. They must have cost around £2.50 whilst we were wearing these lovely Wales shirts.’

Just six weeks later, Iran had their first experience of the tournament at the 1978 World Cup in Argentina.

Iran were beaten by the Netherlands and Peru, but a 1-1 draw with Scotland would effectively end Ally MacLeod’s reign as Scotland’s coach.

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