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When Iran meets U.S. in World Cup, it won’t only be a sport

December 5, 1997

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) _ When Iranian soccer fans heard that one of their opponents in next year’s World Cup would be the United States, many wondered if their leaders would allow a match against Iran’s leading political enemy.

Now, the leaders have given the green light _ and the Iranians are eager to take on the Americans in a match that will have more than mere sporting pride at stake.

As Hank Steinbrecher, secretary general of the U.S. Soccer Federation, said, it will be ``the mother of all soccer matches.″

The World Cup draw held Thursday resulted in a first-round game between Iran and the United States, set for June 21 in Lyon, France.

``When the draws were announced ... the reaction of many of us was that the government wouldn’t allow the team to play against the United States,″ one 27-year-old soccer fan, Mohammad-Reza Dastmalchi, said.

But senior Iranian officials and players said Friday the team would play the United States.

``This is not a political issue, it’s a sport,″ presidential adviser Alireza Moayeri told The Associated Press.

Separating sports and politics, however, is not so easy.

When Iran qualified for the last of the 32 World Cup berths by tying Australia 2-2 in Melbourne last weekend, a senior government cleric proclaimed the win a political prize.

``If our team had failed, our enemies would have said Islam is incapable of running a state,″ Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, head of Parliament’s Guardian Council, said in a radio broadcast sermon Friday.

``It was truly a political matter. The result was, therefore, a political victory,″ he said.

The match against America is bound to spark strong sentiment.

U.S.-Iran relations have been hostile since Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution, which ousted the Washington-backed shah and installed a religious government that plasters ``Death to America″ posters at hotel entrances and government offices.

The U.S. government broke ties with Iran after militants stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran shortly after the revolution and held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days.

``This is going to be a great opportunity to show that soccer and the World Cup can do what politicians and diplomats can’t,″ U.S. Soccer Federation President Alan Rothenberg said. ``Maybe we can have soccer diplomacy like we had pingpong diplomacy with China.″

Members of the U.S. national team said they will put politics aside when they step onto the field but admitted little can be done about the sentiments of fans and observers.

Alexi Lalas, a U.S. defenseman, said the match will be especially important to the Iranians.

``For Iran to beat the U.S. would be like winning the World Cup,″ he said. ``Soccer and the World Cup reflects a nation’s personality and history, something that will be seen during the game. And that’s what the World Cup is all about.″

The match ``will show that we can put politics aside and play a good and fair game,″ he said.

It has been 20 years since Iran last made it to the World Cup. The team’s tie on Saturday had millions of Iranians dancing in the streets of Tehran amid rare scenes of jubilation. Dozens of buildings were draped with the national flag, while even more were plastered with portraits of the country’s leaders.

Since then, the team’s players have been proclaimed national heroes, and every day some company splashes newspaper advertisements of the presents it is giving to the players.

``At the World Cup, we will get what is our right, and help our nation hold its head up high,″ Iran’s ace player Ali Daie said in a television interview Friday.

Iranian soccer fans were confident the Americans will be no match for Iran.

``Me and most of my friends feel that we can’t lose. We will either win or draw, but we can’t lose against a team like the United States,″ Dastmalchi said.

American players politely disagreed.

``When we got Iran, it kind of gave us hope, in all honesty,″ U.S. midfielder Claudio Reyna said. ``We needed a team we felt we could definitely beat.″

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