USA v Iran may not be the greatest match at this summer's World Cup, but Mike Woitalla hopes it will help to end political hostility

To be considered as soft on Iran has been the kiss of death in American politics since Jimmy Carter’s presidency crashed with a failed attempt to rescue 52 US hostages, who were held for 444 days in Tehran. But Iranians could have felt some relief had Bob Dole defeated Bill Clinton in the 1996 presidential election. Comic relief, that is. Pronounce or spell “Dole” in the Persian language (Farsi) and it comes out as “penis”. (Not that the White House dick has stayed out of the news, but that’s another story).

Shortly after I learned Dole means penis in Persian, I talked to Esfandiar Baharmast, the top referee in the US. Born in Iran, Baharmast moved to Missouri aged 18 and he is one of 2.5 million Iranians who live in the US. Baharmast was delighted when the United States drew Iran in Group F of France ’98. “I knew it would happen,” he said. “I had a feeling.”

Baharmast looks forward to seeing his native country in the news for reasons not relating to the hostilities between the two countries. Iranian leaders demonise the US in the true sense of the word. When wrestler Rasul Khadem won an Olympic gold medal in Atlanta, Iran’s president said the victory had raised Iran’s flag “in the house of Satan.” And in the US, reports about Iran that don’t involve extremist behaviour or alleged terrorism are as rare as a Ramadan picnic in Tehran.

Baharmast believes that a game can help break through the animosity that politics have spawned. “Anytime we have avenues of culture, art or sports,” he said, “it can help to bring people together. After the United States-Jamaica game in Washington, I saw Jamaica and USA fans dancing together.”

Now a US citizen, Baharmast lived in the States when strife between the nations peaked. “People would be very friendly to me,” he said. “Then when they asked me where I was from and I said ‘Iran’, their attitude changed and I’d get dirty looks.”

During the 1979 hostage crisis Iranian men in the US were known to shave twice a day to keep their complexions light. Even today, Iranians often say they are from “Persia” when asked about their origins. There are different reasons why that answer is appropriate, but certainly one is to avoid prejudice.

“I always say, ‘I’m from my mother’,” says Hassan Nazari, a starter in all three games for Iran in the 1978 World Cup, when they drew with Scotland in their only finals appearance to date. “Then when they ask again, I say ‘Iran’. Some feel shame in that. I don’t.”

Nazari came to live the States in the 1980s and he is now a professional youth coach in Dallas. “I was always treated well here,” he said. “When people meet each other, they learn the truth – as opposed to what they are taught in the media. I thought Texas was the wild, wild West before I came here. And I’m sure many people think everyone in the middle east rides a camel.”

Nassan’s World Cup teammates Iraj Danaifard and Adranik Eskandarian (scorer of the own goal against Scotland) played in the old North American Soccer League and were often listed in programmes as “Persian” and “Armenian” so as not to incite fans. Eskandarian – who was indeed born in Armenia – says he was treated well. So perhaps it is true that sport can break down political hostility. (Did Spurs fans really fly the banner: “Take the Islands, let us keep Ossie”?)

The US State Department spokesman James Foley said after the draw: “If this soccer match is a sign of our ability to deal with each other at least in this one area in a civilized and positive way, that’s something we could applaud.” When asked whether Clinton’s 1995 executive order banning all commercial and financial transactions with Iran would prohibit the game – because it produces revenue for Iran – the State Department announced: “That this is a commercial enterprise with Iran, that this is putting money in Iran’s pocket, we can put that to sleep. This is being blown out of proportion. We want to win the game and there will be a lot of general interest . . .”

Iranian officials quoted in US papers were diplomatic. “Governments are one thing,” said one. “We are friends of the American people.” But US Soccer Federation secretary-general Hank Steinbrecher dubbed it “the mother of all games” – a sloppy allusion to Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s “Mother of all Battles” reference during the Gulf war. (That’s Iraq with a ‘Q’.) Federation president Alan Rothenberg was only joking when he said that “all we need is an Iraqi referee”.

US coach Steve Sampson and the players said little about the political implications. In addition to a match with Cuba in February, they’re used to playing against nations with reasons to despise the US. So they know players are more concerned about the score and their bonuses than with political history.

The US media ignored political implications of the game against Yugoslavia, whose majority Serbian population feels slighted by US policy. But thanks to the Iran game, the New York Daily News announced a World Cup War. The New York Times chimed in with Group Hug? Doubtful, and Sports Illustrated gave us A Devil of a Draw.

Rothenberg also suggested that the game could result in a new version of “Ping-Pong Diplomacy”. In 1971, two years after the Cultural Revolution, China surprisingly invited the US table-tennis team to a championship. In came Richard Nixon, whose fervid red-baiting had helped make it impossible for his predecessors to make a similar gesture. He was filmed hugging Mao before they saluted the two nations’ flags.

Will Iranian and American fans dance together? Will Clinton accept the friendly overtures of moderate Iranian president Khatami? What we do know is that ABC-TV expects high ratings for the game. That American editors who usually throw soccer on the back pages won’t ignore this. And that US footballers stand a better chance than the ping-pong players.

From WSC 133 March 1998. What was happening this month

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