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When Iran faced Israel in the 1968 Asian Cup final

As this year's tournament starts in Doha amid a cloud of war, MEE recalls an earlier edition that took place with a backdrop of conflict
Archival footage shows scenes from the AFC Cup final match between Israel and Iran on 19 May 1968 at the Amjadieh Stadium in Tehran (Screengrab/Youtube)
Archival footage shows scenes from the AFC Cup final match between Israel and Iran on 19 May 1968 at the Amjadieh Stadium in Tehran (Screengrab/Youtube)

At a tense and tragic time in the region, Iran will face Palestine in the Qatari capital on Sunday in both teams' first match in the AFC Asian Cup. 

The quadrennial tournament kicked off this weekend in Doha, with nearly half of the 24 competing teams hailing from the Middle East: Qatar, Lebanon, Syria, Iran, the United Arab Emirates, Palestine, Iraq, Jordan, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Oman

The tournament starts for the Palestinian team after nearly 24,000 people have been killed by the Israeli bombardment of the besieged Gaza Strip over the past three months. 

Despite its geographic location in the Middle East and on the Asian continent, Israel is not part of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), and will not be competing in the tournament. 

It wasn't always that way: Israel took part in the first four editions of the AFC Asian Cup, between 1956 and 1968, and won the tournament as host nation in 1964. 

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Only four teams competed in that 1964 edition, after 11 of the 16 participating countries, mostly from Muslim-majority countries, pulled out.

Four years later, Israel travelled to Iran to defend its title, just months after the 1967 Middle East war further shifted the politics of the region.

Two decades earlier, Israel had displaced hundreds of thousands of Palestinians and taken over vast areas of land in the 1948 Nakba, or catastrophe. Now, following the 1967 conflict, Israel occupied the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Egypt's Sinai peninsula and Syria's Golan Heights.

Its football team arrived in Tehran amid that context, visiting a country with which Israel had previously enjoyed relatively cordial relations under then Iranian ruler Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi compared with other neighbours in the region. 

According to a research paper by Or Hareuveny and Yehuda Blanga, academics at Israel's Bar Ilan University, the match was a key flashpoint in Iran's changing relationship with Israel, and with its Jewish minority population. 

The June 1967 war enhanced Iranian solidarity with the Palestinian cause, both amongst the public and the media.

When the Asian Cup came around in May 1968, Iranian officials agreed to host the Israeli team at a time when other Middle Eastern countries were boycotting all Israeli sports teams.

But historians Hareuveny and Blanga found "there was a clear difference between the attitude of officialdom and that of the Iranian public".

Israel and Iran would face off in the final match of the tournament on 19 May, watched by 30,000 fans at the Amjadieh Stadium in Tehran.

It was a hostile atmosphere for the Israeli team, with cassettes and chicken heads reportedly thrown at Israeli players, as well as antisemitic slogans shouted from the stands. 

Israel took the lead in the 56th minute with a goal from midfielder Giora Spiegel. Iran came back with two late goals from forward Homayoun Behzadi and midfielder Parviz Ghelichkhani, winning the match 2-1 and the tournament as a whole. 

Khameini recalled watching match 

Around 40 seconds of grainy footage of the match exists on YouTube, showing Iran's two late goals and jubilant celebrations after the final whistle.

Decades later, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei would remark on having watched the match.

"In those days, I was a young seminary student," he was quoted in Iranian media as saying in 1983.

"The general mood in Tehran was against the Israeli team. After the game, all the people of Tehran showed their joy for this victory. The taxi driver said 'Did you see how we scored?' This showed that the Iranian people were unhappy about the shah's cooperation with Israel," Khamenei said.

The hostility some Iranian Jews felt during the tournament prompted the Tehran Jewish community council to contact the Israeli ambassador and enquire about migration to Israel, according to Hareuveny and Blanga.

In the years following the match, the number of Jews leaving Iran to move to Israel would steadily increase into the tens of thousands.

On the football pitch, Iranians went on to win the next two Asian Cups, in what became a golden era for its national football team. 

For Israel, it was a different story. The boycotts from Arab nations continued, and in 1974 it was officially expelled from the AFC after a Kuwaiti motion for Israel's removal was backed by 17 votes to 13. 

This sent Israel into the footballing wilderness for two decades, until it was accepted into the European body Uefa in 1994. Israel still remains the only member of Uefa to not have any part of its territory on the European continent. 

As Israel's onslaught against Palestinians in Gaza continues, and its conduct of the war is considered at the International Court of Justice over accusations of genocide, questions may resurface about Israel's participation in any football governing body. 

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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