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An Overabundance of Yankee Generosity

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Penner is a columnist for The Times' sports section

As noble objectives go, diplomacy through soccer is about as high as a World Cup match between the United States and Iran can aspire.

And it was well met Sunday night at Stade Gerland in Lyon, perhaps too well by the Americans, who gave their Iranian counterparts individual gifts of friendship, sincere handshakes, the shirts off their backs and anything else their generosity could accommodate.

The soccer match included.

On an evening that advanced U.S.-Iranian relations on the field and in the stands with goodwill gestures large and small, U.S. soccer took an immeasurable step backward when Team USA lost to Iran, one of the least regarded teams in the 1998 World Cup, 2-1.

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From the U.S. perspective, the highlight of the match occurred just before the opening whistle, when the starting 22 players from both countries posed at midfield, American arms draped around Iranian shoulders, for a historic team photo.

After the game, several players from both teams exchanged jerseys, with U.S. captain Thomas Dooley and teammates Frankie Hejduk, Brian McBride and Ernie Stewart walking over to a section of Iranian supporters and applauding to offer congratulations.

Good sportsmanship was in abundance, but good soccer?

For the Americans, the match, which eliminated them from contention for the second round, was 90 minutes of frustration. The United States controlled play for much of the game yet had two shots hit the goal post and another bounce off the crossbar, and it failed to score until Brian McBride’s diving header in the 87th minute.

By then, Iran had put the match out of reach, taking a 2-0 lead on goals in the 40th and 84th minutes.

When the final whistle sounded, Iranian players fell to their knees, partly in relief, partly in disbelief, while thousands of Iranian fans in the stands raucously blew horns and waved red-green-and-white-striped flags.

“This is the greatest game we have ever played,” Iran forward Khodadad Azizi said. “The whole nation was waiting for this game. They expected us to win.”

More than as a defining moment, Iran captain and goalkeeper Ahmad Abedzadeh described the match as a redefining moment for his country.

“After 20 years and all the situations [between Iran and the United States], it was important to show that all the things said about Iran were not true,” Abedzadeh said. “We were courageous. We played fair. It was very important.”

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Predictions of a politically charged match played out, although not entirely as expected. In fact, the political schism between the United States and Iran was all but eclipsed by an internal conflict within Iran between the Tehran government and an opposition group of exiled Iranians, the Moujahedeen Khalq.

Sunday morning, hours before kickoff, members of the opposition group, including two players from the 1978 Iranian World Cup team, held a news conference in a hotel half a mile from Stade Gerland, denouncing the current regime for attempting to use the U.S.-Iran soccer match as a propaganda device.

Yet inside the stadium, thousands of Iranian fans wore and waved T-shirts bearing the likeness of the leader of the resistance group, Massoud Rajavi--T-shirts distributed outside the gates by members of the Moujahedeen.

It helped create a sometimes surreal atmosphere: The underdog Iranian players beating the United States on the field while thousands of Iranian fans wearing opposition-group T-shirts danced to “The Macarena” and performed the ultimate form of Western social expression, the Wave.

The display of opposition support did not sit comfortably with all members of the Iranian team.

“I saw it,” Iran Coach Jalal Talebi said. “I didn’t care. I was looking at the game. That’s what I’m here for--to look at my team, not the protesters.”

Abedzadeh bristled when asked about the protesters.

“Don’t ask a sporting person a political question,” he said, before adding, “We respect everyone. They had the same objective--to give us energy.”

In the days leading up to the match, officials from both the U.S. and Iranian governments took precautionary measures to ease tensions surrounding the encounter.

Early in the week, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright offered an olive branch by proposing a normalization of relations between the two governments after nearly two decades of hostility. Iranian President Mohammad Khatami sent a message to the Iranian national team, encouraging the players to show “both courage and fair play. We have to let our personal problems lie and concentrate on our collective and national religious values.”

Sunday, just before the game, President Clinton issued a statement in which he said he hoped the game would be “another step toward ending the estrangement between our two countries.”

In downtown Lyon and outside Stade Gerland, fans from both countries mingled without incident, dancing and singing and posing for photographs together.

“It’s been very peaceful,” said one American fan, Jay Ribera of New York City. “No commotion. All of the Iranian fans have been very friendly with us. There are no hooligans here.”

*

Another fan, Bill Rizzo of New Jersey, said he “expected a hostile crowd when we got here, but all we’ve gotten from the Iranian fans are smiles and handshakes.”

“The Iranians are just happy to be here, just like we are. Every Iranian I see wants to shake hands or take pictures together. It was hyped up to be so much worse than it is,” Rizzo added.

Dave Perry of Austin, Texas, admitted he had been “a little nervous” traveling to Lyon for the game but said he had found the atmosphere to be “more like a college football game than a big political event. The fans were much more intense at the Germany match [last Monday in Paris].”

“This is like the NCAA basketball tournament, when two little schools that never expected to get there suddenly wind up playing each other. We’re like the little school that slipped into the NCAA tournament.”

Very similar, sad truth be told.

As happens with all those little schools, sooner or later, elimination took place--to the U.S. soccer team considerably sooner than expected.


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