Before anyone gets too worked up over today's World Cup soccer match between the United States and Iran, remember that in recent years no one has represented our country in international competition any better than a man born in Iran.
When Matt Ghaffari squared off against Alexander Karelin of Russia in a gold medal Greco-Roman wrestling match during the 1996 Olympics, it had the feel of a Cold War showdown. Ghaffari, whose family immigrated to the United States when he was a teenager in the 1970s, wore a stars-and-stripes bandanna and took the mat to the music from "Rocky." Karelin's bald head and menacing glare made him the perfect Drago-type opponent.
Even though Ghaffari lost to Karelin, who had never been beaten outside Russia, he became a hero in defeat. There was no shame in losing to the invincible Karelin. After crying on the medal stand because he felt he had let his country down, Ghaffari discovered his adopted homeland loved him as much as he loved it. He took his silver medal on a public tour through the streets of Atlanta, to parks and restaurants and to the hospital room of Fallon Stubbs, whose mother was killed in the Centennial Park bombing.
Although Ghaffari was well received everywhere, the support was strongest in the Iranian immigrant community.
"One of my most memorable moments from the Olympics [was getting] telegraphs and letters from Iranian-American families," Ghaffari said Saturday. "Their kids were sometimes, because of stereotypes, ashamed [to be Iranian]. Now, they were very proud that they can represent America.
"We would like to keep our culture and heritage, because we go back 2,530 years and we try to teach that to our kids. At the same time, we want to be as American as our neighbors."
There isn't any doubt about Ghaffari's rooting interest today.
"I'm pulling for USA to win the soccer game," Ghaffari said. "Red, white and blue all the way."
Good old "Us vs. Them" showdowns are hard to come by these days. No more Soviet Union, no more Berlin Wall. We've gone from the Space Race, to sharing the same space place aboard Mir.
That's why so much has been made of today's World Cup match. There's plenty of antagonism left between the U.S. and Iran, going back nearly two decades to the hostage crisis. It's amazing how something as innocent as a soccer match can conjure up images of the Ayatollah Khomeini.
Ghaffari hopes that instead of dredging up the past, this match will help build a different future.
"Like Olympics, World Cups have political ties," Ghaffari said from the Olympic training center in Colorado Springs, Colo., where he is preparing for the world team trials in New Orleans this week. "I know the more that the American public sees the athletic side, more than the political side, they'll realize things are all the same.
"I believe that no matter what happens, after the game the players normally exchange uniforms and shake hands and hug. That's what I'd like to see. In my sport you shake hands and then try to kill each other, then shake hands at the end.
"I look at my kids, all the kids who look at sports should come away with the message of sportsmanship," said Ghaffari, who has three daughters (his wife is expecting a son in November). "I don't want my kids to see violence and hooligans. The Olympic motto . . . at the end, humanity comes first. Sportsmanship."
It was a sporting event that resulted in the most significant exchange between the United States and Iran in two decades. In February a group of freestyle wrestlers went to Iran, and for a change the U.S. flag was waving--not burning--in Iran.
"Iran went overboard trying to make these Americans have fun," said Ghaffari, who did not make the trip. "There's no liquor in the country, so they went overseas to buy beers to bring it to these guys. They felt like being Michael Jordan or Brett Favre, because wrestling is the No. 1 sport in Iran. People wanted autographs and treated them like . . . they got the VIP VIP treatment."
Iranian wrestlers competed in Oklahoma in April, furthering an exchange that was compared to the pingpong diplomacy with China in the 1970s.
"The relationships in the last 20 years have been almost nothing," Ghaffari said. "In the last 12 months . . . the relationship has improved."
Maybe 90 minutes of soccer will help. Odds are it won't. If you watch, don't get caught up in the politics of the match. Keep it simple. Look at the Iranian players and remember: One of them might one day be like Matt Ghaffari.