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Taking on Iran

Iranian captain Hamid Derakhshan, left, and Iraqi captain Ahmad Radhi, right, lead their teams on to the pitch at Khalifa stadium in Doha, Qatar on 22nd October 1993 (Burhan Ozbilici/AP/Press Association Images)

Tonight, Iran plays its first game in this year’s FIFA World Cup against Nigeria, marking the fourth time Iran has taken part in football’s biggest event.

In the 1994 World Cup the country wasn’t lucky enough to qualify. DG associate editor James Montague spoke with referee Ion Crăciunescu, who oversaw a politically charged qualifying game between recently-warring nations Iran and Iraq in Doha in late 1993. Here’s an excerpt of his report on the ‘Miracle of Doha’, published in issue #13 of Delayed Gratification.

“The pay we received from FIFA was double what we would normally get,” Crăciunescu tells me in a café in his home city of Bucharest. “When we got there Blatter told us that we could expect a real horror tournament.”

Crăciunescu had a lot of experience of operating under tough conditions. As a young referee in communist Romania he had to negotiate a minefield of corruption and manipulation from the authorities, team owners and players. He was once beaten unconscious after refereeing a match in a remote mining town in the north-east of the country.

On another occasion he was threatened with arrest by the country’s feared secret police, the Securitate. Being an international referee in 1980s Romania meant being clean and maintaining standards of dignity, transparency and honesty that no one else in the country seemed too bothered with.

Crăciunescu was the perfect person to take charge when Iraq played Iran. Iran had made it to one World Cup finals tournament in 1978 where they famously drew with an overconfident Scotland. But that was under the Shah’s rule and the 1979 Islamic revolution had spelt the end for that team, many of whom had fled the country.

When the Iran-Iraq conflict broke out, the domestic league was suspended. All men of fighting age were needed on the front line.

“The big issue was to try to ensure fair play so that war didn’t erupt on the pitch,” Crăciunescu explains. He went in hard. “I gave many yellow cards,” he recalls with a guilty smile. “I remember, when anybody did anything, just the smallest thing, I’d give a card.” His severity did the trick. The match passed without incident. Iraq won 2-1.”

Check out other highlights of issue #13 here. To buy the issue – and other back issues – visit the DG shop.

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