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Favored Yugoslavia Holds Off Upstarts

By Anne Swardson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, June 15, 1998; Page B1




SAINT-ETIENNE, France, June 14 — Ever since Iran qualified for the World Cup last November, the conventional wisdom has been that it would be an easy team to beat. Especially when Iran drew a group that included Germany and Yugoslavia — as well as the United States — the unspoken assumption was that the Iranians would be a pushover.

That assumption died on the field of Stade Geoffrey Guichard today as Yugoslavia eked out a 1-0 victory against an aggressive, sophisticated Iran team. It took a free kick by Yugoslav fullback Sinisa Mihaljovic in the 72nd minute for Yugoslavia to score.

Yugoslavia and Iran alike treated the game's outcome as a success for Iran and a failure for Yugoslavia, a country previously mentioned as a dark-horse candidate to win this 32-nation tournament.

"We didn't lose a game, we lost a [free] kick," said Iran's coach, Jalal Talebi, who the day before the game had tried to keep expectations low.

"Before the game I told the players the Iranian team is a very strong one, but nobody believed me," said Yugoslav Coach Slobodan Santrac. "I am not very satisfied with the play of my team."

For the United States, which will play Iran next Sunday in Lyon in a much-heralded match of political foes, today's game was a clear warning to be prepared.

"The United States really has to concentrate for this game against Iran," said Yugoslav halfback Ljubinko Brulovic. "Ours was a very hard match."

The Iranian players surprised consistently during the game with their play. They were expected to be attacking and aggressive, and they were. As Talebi has said frequently, that is their natural style. But they also defended strongly when necessary, even with the number two goalie, Nima Nakissa.

And the Iranians played smart. In their many runs down the field, they passed the ball in a series of set movies that fooled the Yugoslavs time and again. Khodad Azizi, one of only two forwards in the 2-6-2 formation and one of three Iranians who plays professionally in Europe, buzzed among the taller Yugoslav defenders with impunity, at least in the first half.

This was to have been a triumphant return to Saint-Etienne for Yugoslavia. The last time the national team played in this stadium in south-central France was on this day in 1984. The game was against France in the quarterfinals of the European championships.

Yugoslavia lost, 3-2, as French star Michel Platini got a hat trick. One of the Yugoslav goals was scored by then-19-year-old midfielder Dragan Stojkovic.

Today, Platini was in the VIP section of the stands as top organizer of the World Cup. And Stojkovic, 33, was on the field as the captain of the team. He failed to shine, however, consistently overshooting his corner kicks, and left in the 68th minute.

Yugoslavia was clearly off its usual game. Players were not even as fluid as in their friendly match against Japan on June 3. In the first half especially, they relied too much on defense and failed to move the ball down the field. Santrac suggested part of the problem was pulling together a unified team from players who play professionally in seven countries.

The Iranian performance can essentially be credited to Talebi, who took over the team only on May 20. He replaced Tomaslav Ivic, a Croat, who was fired after a series of losses in friendly matches culminating in a 7-1 defeat to the pro team AS Roma on May 19. Talebi, with a less illustrious coaching career, opened up to his players, and urged them to open up to him. An Iranian, he could speak their language, literally and figuratively. Instead of trying to strengthen Iran's traditionally weak defense, he allowed players to fall back to their customary attacking strategy. As a result, they felt comfortable both on offense and on defense.

"We will do even better when we have more experience," said halfback Mehdi Mahdavikia. "You will see this was just the beginning."

Though clearly exhilarated, Talebi remained cautious.

"We know we are going to have very hard games," he said. "But if we are going to die, we are going to die standing up. We know we are going to have very hard games."

But when it comes to the U.S. game, he said: "I believe we can defeat any team we play against. We are looking forward to victory against the United States."

Said Iranian halfback Javad Zarincheh: "That's the great thing about football: The unexpected happens."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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