Iran Beats U.S., 2-1, in World Cup Match
By Anne Swardson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, June 22, 1998; Page A01
After all the fear that this game would create more animosity between two longtime political adversaries, the Americans and the Iranians had a love fest. The players couldn't have been nicer to each other; the fans mingled with good cheer.
But the stands of the Stade Gerland here rocked all evening with conflict between Iranians. Iran's 2-1 victory ended U.S. chances of advancing to the next round of the tournament -- and it provided a stage for Iranian opponents of the Islamic regime in Tehran to promote their cause, sometimes violently.
"We were seated near a lot of Iranians, and at first we thought they were screaming about Americans. We were relieved to find out they were screaming at each other," said American fan Jill Klein after the game. Added one of her 12-year-old companions, Meg Lally: "It was pretty scary when we got stuck between the two sides."
Fistfights, scuffles, flag-waving and sign-carrying punctuated the game. French police officers, often prone to overreaction, forcibly removed many spectators, tore down banners and confiscated posters with political messages. Americans in the stands -- who,through a seating error, were largely mixed in with the Iranians -- must have felt as if they were at the wrong game.
The team members, meanwhile, couldn't have been cozier. They broke standard World Cup practice by posing for the pre-game photo jointly rather than as separate teams. They exchanged jerseys. Before kickoff, the Iranians gave the Americans flowers and a carved silver tray, and the Americans gave the Iranians pennants. By the time the opening formalities and the awkward exchanges were done, captains Thomas Dooley for the United States and Ali Daei for Iran could barely walk back to the sidelines, they were so loaded down with loot.
Shortly after the game began, U.S. halfback Claudio Reyna practically embraced Daei, an Iranian forward, as he gently helped him up after knocking him down. At just that moment, a solid phalanx of police officers was lining the stairs in the end zone to separate factions and break up fistfights between Iranian fans.
The demonstrations in the stands were engineered largely by the National Council of Resistance, known as the mujaheddin. The dissidents are opposed to the Islamic government of President Mohammed Khatemi; a "Death to Khatemi" banner was held up in the end zone. Posters of Maryam Rajavi, the woman whom the dissidents consider their leader, hung in several places, and thousands of fans wore T-shirts with her picture.
Inside and outside the stadium, American fans seemed almost sedate by comparison. There were plenty of American flags and red, white and blue clothing, but American cheers barely registered on the soccer Richter scale compared with the Iranian screams when Iran's two goals were scored. From all appearances, the Iranian factions did unite in support of their victorious national team -- and politely clapped when Brian McBride scored the only U.S. goal late in the game.
Security outside the Stade Gerland was mercilessly tight. Spectators had to go through three or more checkpoints, and some were searched. At each checkpoint, English and Persian-speaking officers scrutinized T-shirts, banners and other messages for propaganda and hate messages. The Rajavi T-shirts were worn under other garments.
Outside the stadium before the game, the different worlds of modern Iran were on display. Some young women wore tight T-shirts, bell-bottoms and platform shoes; others were clad in head scarves and long robes or loose pantsuits. Most of the flags being carried had the markings of Iran's current official flag, but a few featured the lion-and-sun insignia of the late Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi's regime. None of those were allowed into the stadium.
By contrast, contacts between Americans and Iranians were an ode to joy. In downtown Lyon a few hours before the game, eight young Americans played soccer on a grassy patch near the city's famous clock tower. As cars stuffed with Iranian supporters roared by, flags flying out the window, the shirtless young Americans would stop, wave and cheer. The Iranians waved back. "It's a sporting match. It's everybody out having fun," said Jeremy Woolf, 20, a community college student in Kansas City. "When we saw Iranians this afternoon, we'd say, 'Good luck, no hard feelings.' We'd chant 'Iran,' they'd chant 'U.S.A.' "
Around the corner in the central plaza, several hundred Iranians were clapping, singing, carrying flags and taking over the local McDonald's. To many of them, it was a reunion of the Iranian diaspora, of those who had fled from the revolution of 1979.
"This is not Iran versus the U.S.A.," said Hessam Afshat, 41, a businessman who lives in McLean with his wife, Armaghan, who was with him. "It is Iranian nationalism. Iranians have come here from Dubai, Australia, Denmark, the United States."
Armaghan Afshat said: "All of us Iranians are so pleased to see our soccer team in the game again." (The team's only previous appearance in the World Cup was in 1978).
"It's one of the first positive things we've seen come out of Iran in years," she said.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company