Good Sports, Not Bad Blood, Spur Players
By Amy Shipley and Anne Swardson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, June 19, 1998; Page C8
SAINT-JEAN D'ARDIERES, June 18 Some U.S. and Iranian soccer players have conflicting opinions about a movie shown on French television last week, and they vigorously disagree over who will win the World Cup match Sunday in Lyon between the longtime political foes.
Yet there is one matter over which there is no dispute: that sportsmanship should rise above politics in the crucial first-round Group F match.
"I think all of us know the implications of this game," U.S. forward Eric Wynalda said at the team's chateau today. "It's a wonderful opportunity for soccer to bring two nations together. That's the beauty of the World Cup. There have been obvious political differences between the two countries, but we as diplomats of sport can go out there and show there are more important things like human relations."
Wynalda's remarks captured the spirit that seems to be shared by both sides regarding the match's political aspect. But despite attempts by Iran and the United States to direct attention away from conflict, neither was entirely successful today.
In Paris, soccer's world governing body, FIFA, acknowledged the inherent tension in the match by announcing that a Swiss referee was selected because Switzerland maintains friendly ties with both the United States and Iran.
In the most controversial statements yet made by any player on either side, U.S. defender Alexi Lalas dismissed the Iranians' complaints about the movie "Not Without My Daughter," which aired on French television Monday night. The movie starring Sally Field greatly upset the Iranian team because of its negative portrayal of Iranians.
Lalas said today he liked the movie and didn't know what all the fuss was about.
"It's a good movie," Lalas said. "I mean, Sally Field did a tremendous job in the movie. I've seen it several times myself. If they're insulted by the movie being shown, they've got a lot bigger problems. It means nothing to us. It's their problem, not ours."
Midfielder Tab Ramos agreed, saying, "It's only a movie."
Iranian forward Ali Daei, when told of the United States' lack of empathy today at the team's training site in Yssingeaux, said sternly: "This film is a lie. ... [But] we will not let it disturb us before the match. We will play to get our three points for a victory in the match with the United States. Against Yugoslavia, we showed the strength of Iranian culture."
Though the Iranians, like the Americans, lost their first-round match, they played surprisingly well in the 1-0 defeat to Yugoslavia.
Lalas said the Iranian team would be more vulnerable in the match if players got caught up in emotions unrelated to soccer.
"For us it's a soccer game; for them it might be something more," Lalas said. "As far as pressure, we're under pressure because this is a team we feel we should beat. I hope they're playing for the history and all that sort of stuff because that just adds to the pressure on them.
"We're mature enough and experienced enough to know this has nothing to do with government or politics. ... Sports is a wonderful way to put aside things."
Iranian Coach Jalal Talebi said Wednesday his team would bring a gift for the United States. U.S. players said today they will bring goodwill of their own.
"Before the game, we will shake each others' hands and afterward, we are going to exchange shirts," U.S. midfielder Ernie Stewart said. "I think we should be a symbol to both nations of how things could be."
U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Allbright announced Wednesday an offer to begin normalizing relations with Iran. The United States has had no diplomatic relations with Iran since 1979, when 52 Americans were taken hostage at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.
Not everything is normal. Sampson said U.S. team security had already been heightened. Because of threats made by Iranian opposition groups to disrupt the match, FIFA also called for increased security in Lyon.
Despite all this, the teams have tried to remain focused on the match. Both have talked confidently about winning Sunday, and U.S. defender Thomas Dooley said outright today that "we will win."
Calling itself the underdog, the less experienced Iranian team which is making its first World Cup appearance in 20 years promises to unveil a few surprises for the United States.
"Physically, we are weaker," Talebi said. "We have a problem playing against stronger and bigger teams. ... It goes to our structure. We are not at all a strong people. But mentally we are clever. That's why we are here.
"We are going to use different tactics than we did against Yugoslavia. In Yugoslavia, we tried not to lose. In the U.S. game, we are trying to win."
As for the U.S. players, Lalas said: "For a lot of us, it's about redeeming ourselves in front of the world. We were not happy with our performance against Germany [a 2-0 defeat Monday], and we want to prove to the rest of the world that we are a quality team that deserves to get to the second round."
Both the Iranian and U.S. sides said they had received numerous faxes and letters from well-wishers this week. And both seem happy that, no matter how much passion Sunday brings, one simple fact remains:
"This war," U.S. midfielder Jeff Agoos said, "will only last 90 minutes."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company