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 World Cup ' 98

 For Iran, defeating the U.S. is only part of the challenge.
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U.S., Iran Find Politics Are Afoot

By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 21, 1998; Page D1

LYON, June 20 — Sunday's World Cup match between the United States and Iran has prompted comment from President Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright. Members of Iran's Revolutionary Guard procured tickets, as did members of Iranian exile groups, who have threatened to disrupt the match.

Signs or banners bearing any inscription have been banned, and soccer officials promise more meticulous body searches at the entry gates of Lyon's Stade Gerland. World soccer officials appointed a Swiss referee expressly because Switzerland possesses a friendly relationship with both nations.

Trying to ignore the political circus that has set up camp around both teams this week, the U.S. players discovered, proved impossible. Additionally, the U.S. players and Coach Steve Sampson have faced criticism in recent days because of performance, not politics.

The players eagerly await the start of Sunday's match and the end of the discussion that has preceded it. They faced a last round of questions today from about 100 leaning, elbowing reporters and dozens of television cameras in a stuffy interview area just outside Stade Gerland.

"This is a game that will determine the future of our planet," defender Alexi Lalas said, tongue in cheek. "It's the single most important event staged in the history of the world. Other than that, it's just a soccer game."

And even at that, it's an incredibly important soccer game for both teams. A loss for either would effectively end its chances of moving on to the second round, which the United States accomplished in 1994, albeit in a field of 24 teams instead of 32. For the United States, a defeat could break the team's fragile spirit, shaken by the backbiting and finger-pointing that followed its opening 2-0 loss to Germany Monday. And it would certainly send Sampson's job security meter dangerously close to "fired."

The Iranian team, making its first World Cup appearance in 20 years, looked so unexpectedly strong last Sunday in its 1-0 loss to Yugoslavia that few doubt the United States could lose if it comes out with the same listlessness it showed early against Germany.

"I almost thought it was going to be a walk-through," U.S. midfielder Frankie Hejduk said of the Iran game. "Iran surprised me. A lot of players had some great opportunities against Yugoslavia. It's not going to be a walk in the park for us. We are going to have to play our best game in months to beat them."

The United States saw the Stade Gerland field for the first time today, conducting a short workout there before meeting with reporters. Beads of sweat ran down Sampson's face as he talked on a small stage, declining with a wide grin to discuss the multitude of changes he has in store for Iran. Sampson has said he wants to give Iran no strategical advantage.

Some secrets, however, have been leaked. On Tuesday, Tab Ramos said he was told by Sampson he would start. Friday, Roy Wegerle revealed that Sampson decided to go with two forwards instead of one as the team did against Germany. Sampson is expected to start at least three players who did not start in Monday's match: Hejduk, Ramos and either Wegerle or Brian McBride in the second forward spot. Veterans Lalas, Marcelo Balboa and Joe-Max Moore also could see playing time.

"We cannot afford to start slowly," Sampson said. "We cannot afford to play conservatively. We must attack and play for three points."

A team earns three points for a victory and one for a tie.

Ramos likely will replace Claudio Reyna at the attacking midfield position, pushing Reyna into a defensive midfielder spot in place of Chad Deering. Reyna, whom Sampson called his "playmaker" a month ago at the start of training camp, played poorly against Germany, marked tightly by German midfielder Jens Jeremies.

"I believe the personnel we will have on the field will be able to offset that, if in fact one of our dominant midfielders is shut down," Sampson said.

"I hope I can create scoring opportunities for the guys up front," Ramos said.

The United States has three problems defensively: forwards Khodadad Azizi and Ali Daei and midfielder Karim Bagheri. That Iranian threesome plays in the esteemed German Bundesliga and gave Yugoslavia trouble last Sunday.

The United States also possesses a mathematical problem. In the event of a tie within Group F for advancement to the second round, goal differential and goals scored become important. The U.S. team sits at the bottom of its group in that category.

"We have to try to win by a two or three goal margin," Hejduk said. "You can't do that if you play defensively. We're going to have to go full-blown attack for [this] game."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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