Iran Team Earns Village's Respect
By Anne Swardson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, June 20, 1998; Page E4
YSSINGEAUX, France, June 19 No matter who wins the Iran-United States game Sunday, the Iranian players know they will receive a warm welcome when they go home. In fact, a celebration already is scheduled for Monday.
Not in Iran, but in Yssingeaux, a southern town of 7,000 where the Iranian team's training camp is located. This village in France's volcano country has adopted the Iranian players to a degree unusual even by the universal-bonhomie standards of this 32-nation tournament.
The local bakeries, bars, hardware stores and knickknack shops all feature signs in the colors of the Iranian flag welcoming the team in both French and Farsi, the Iranian language. Every issue of the local newspaper features an article of team news in Farsi. Iranian poetry, music, culture and the country's treatment of women highlighted a series of evening presentations.
A downtown shop sells Iran-made curios, and Wednesday night local restaurateurs and 50 volunteers put on a Persian dinner for 700 people, about half Iranian and half locals. Four hundred people were turned away, but the team was in attendance.
"There was a real connection between the locals and the Iranians," said Yssingeaux mayor and national politician Jacques Barrot. "We have become fans of Iran in the sporting sense."
More than the Americans might like, in fact. Come Sunday, Barrot and other locals will be in the stands rooting for Iran. "It's not out of aversion for the United States," Barrot said. "But we are on the Iranian team, in a sense."
Many locals watched Iran's game against Yugoslavia last Sunday on television, said Georges Lezotre, a reporter for the local newspaper. Yugoslavia won, 1-0.
"I heard people here talking about the game saying, 'We should have had a draw,'" Lezotre said. "I was struck by how they said 'we'."
Yssingeaux and Barrot lobbied hard to get the Iranians to stay here. The sites of the team's three games Saint-Etienne, Lyon and Montpellier all are in southern-southeastern France. But the crowning allure was the National School of Advanced Pastry Studies.
Located in a 19th-century chateau on one side of town, the school normally trains professional pastry chefs from France and around the world. Now, however, head chef Alain Sagnol is cooking salmon and the local lentils for the team under the eye of an Iranian culinary adviser. Jacuzzis, a workout room and sauna were added to the chateau; the facilities will be turned into a health club when the Iranians depart.
In addition, larger beds were brought in to the dormitory-style rooms and televisions and refrigerators were installed. Contrary to early reports that female staff members had been asked to leave in deference to Islamic law favoring sex segregation, cleaning women and chambermaids have remained and try to do their work when the players are not around.
The team has remained virtually cloistered in the chateau, with forays out mostly for closed training sessions at a local stadium. Players did visit the nearby town of Puys en Velay on Thursday for some shopping and sightseeing. But most of the cultural exchanges have come from the steady stream of Iranian fans into Yssingeaux.
A group of young people from Iran is lodged at a vacation colony just down the road, and Iranians who live in Europe drive in, spend a few days and leave. They have come not just from France, but from Germany and as far away as Denmark.
At first, the female Iranian visitors wore scarves over their heads and very modest clothing. But now, "they wear jeans, they wear skirts and stockings," said Jeannine Tardy, who runs a small grocery store on the main square. "They are very warm and friendly. I let some in just at closing time and they thanked me over and over. I guess it's different in Iran."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company