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 World Cup ' 98

 On Sunday, Iran defeated the U.S.
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With Good, Swift Kick, We Get the Boot From Iran

By Tony Kornheiser
Washington Post Columnist
Tuesday, June 23, 1998; Page E1

Wait a second, I thought we were the great Satan. Not the "oh, he hit the post!" Satan. Or the "better luck in Japan in 2002" Satan. Or the choking imperialist dog Satan.

This stinks.

I hesitate to be politically incorrect, but this bites like David Cone's mother's dog.

We can't beat Iran?

We give Ken Starr $40 million to chase his own tail, and we can't beat Iran?

We have to sit through two hours of soccer on TV, which is to say one hour and 56 minutes worth of excruciatingly tedious passing (I'm so thrilled that Joe-Max Moore can advance the ball with his head — next!) interrupted by an occasional hapless attempt to actually score — and we can't beat Iran?

I don't care if it's soccer. How good can Iran be in soccer? They've only got two kinds of soccer fields in Iran, natural sand and artificial sand.

Now we're done. We've got this meaningless game against Yugoslavia, and then we're on the next plane home. This is what we waited four years for? To be out of the running before any of us learned how to spell "Hejduk"?

What happened to the soccer boom in this country? Supposedly we've got 50 million kids playing soccer. (Whaddya think accounts for all those minivans on the Beltway? Every one of them is stuffed with 10 kids in cleats, and 250 orange sections for halftime.) Shouldn't this have given us a huge pool of soccer talent to pick from? I mean, they can't all grow up to be big, fat couch potatoes watching Mark McGwire take batting practice.

Excuse me, Tony, but you don't know anything about soccer. You think a "keeper" is a fish you don't throw back. And now, just because we lost to Iran, you're going to jump up and down like a yahoo and demand the coach be fired, aren't you? You couldn't name five players on the U.S. team if your life depended on it.

Oh yeah? Tab Ramos. Casey Kasem. Cobi Jones. Kobe Bryant. And the grungy guy with the red goatee.

Seriously, who died and made the Iranians into Brazil? Just a day before the Iran game our players weren't talking about "how," they were talking about "how many." Frankie Hejduk said, "We have to try to win by a two- or three-goal margin."

Nobody expected us to beat Germany. But Iran? Come on. Iran hadn't played in the World Cup in 20 years. This is our third straight trip. We should have learned something by now.

This was supposed to be our best team ever. We even stacked the deck with David Regis, who grew up French and speaks perhaps three words of English: "Cabernet Sauvignon, please." Regis became a U.S. citizen approximately 35 seconds before this World Cup began — and by now likely regrets it. There's no point in Regis ever coming here now. It's not like there's going to be a parade. What's he going to do here, open up an Au Bon Pain?

I don't want to sound like a card-carrying jingoist moron, but it's humiliating to be beaten by Iran. Don't get me wrong, Iran played swell; its players countered everything the U.S. did. But it's disconcerting to read that after the game the spiritual leader of Iran congratulated his team with these words: "Tonight, again, the strong and arrogant opponent felt the bitter sting of defeat at your hands." (Now that's a postgame quote. Wouldn't it be great if Norv Turner spoke like that after a Cowboys game, instead of, "Well, it's always nice to win. Our guys competed, and we look forward to next week, hoss.")

Some games mean more than others. There was an Olympic water polo game once between the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia where the pool was red with blood. And once, before a World cup match against Germany, an English team was given this pep talk: "If, on the morrow, the Germans beat us at our national game, we'd do well to remember that twice in this century, we have beaten them at theirs."

I don't begrudge athletes for keeping politics out of this game — athletes should do that. The field of play is all they should care about. They're playing to win the game, not win the last war. But let us not deny that for some of us who don't want to live in the past, but who remember when yellow ribbons were tied around every tree in the neighborhood, beating Iran would have been a trifle sweeter than beating, say, the juggernaut that is Macedonia.

Eight weeks ago Steve Sampson, the U.S. coach, shot off his mouth, guaranteeing that the U.S. would win the World Cup within the next 10 to 15 years. If that happens, it's going to happen without Sampson. As they say in the diner, Sampson is toast.

His public profile prior to the beginning of the World Cup was largely tied up in accusing John Harkes of kidnapping the Lindbergh baby. Right now the crowning achievement of Sampson's his coaching tenure is that he kept Harkes on this side of the Atlantic Ocean.

Since then it has been all downhill for Sampson. Against Germany, his team was quickly out of the game. The strategy was to keep Germany from scoring for as long as possible. It worked for about nine minutes. The Americans lasted about as long as Peter McNeely.

Against Iran, Sampson shuffled the lineup. He started a bunch of new players, and committed the U.S. to offense. The Americans took 27 shots at goal — almost triple the number that they had against Germany. One shot hit the crossbar. A couple hit the post. Years from now it will be said that three others hit the blimp, and giant birds carried off five more that would've gone in clean. But guess what? Iran won, 2-1. The U.S. may have outplayed Iran, as everybody says. But Iran outscored the U.S., and the last time I looked that was what counted.

Somebody has to take the fall for this. And it will be Sampson. Sampson's position is even more tenuous because of what Sampson's predecessor, Bora Milutinovic, has done with Nigeria. Nigeria is 2-0 and into the second round. Right now Milutinovic looks like Red Auerbach, and Sampson looks like Red Klotz. Sampson will lose his job. It could be worse. In some countries he could lose his hands.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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