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In Iran, Soccer's a Political Football

By Anne Swardson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, June 2, 1998; Page E3

COMO, Italy — Ever since Iran drew the United States as one of its three first-round opponents in the 1998 World Cup soccer tournament, officials and players in both countries have insisted the event is about sports, not politics.

Unfortunately for Iran, the sports side is having a bit of trouble. The Iranian soccer team is headed to the World Cup with a mediocre record in its tune-up matches, and with its third coach in five months.

Its only bright light is psychological: The new head coach, an Iranian, has improved the team's morale. On May 23, three days after he was named to the post, Jalal Talebi led Iran to a 4-1 victory against Italian League power Inter Milan, although Inter Milan was without 13 of its best players — all of whom had left to train with their nations' World Cup teams.

"We still have the pressure of the U.S. game against us, but I believe the players will take heart from this," said Talebi, who was promoted from technical advisor to head coach immediately after Iran lost an exhibition match to Italian League club AS Roma, 7-1.

An Iranian whose residence is in Palo Alto, Calif., Talebi most recently has coached the Tehran-based pro team Bahman, the Indonesian Olympic team and pro teams in Singapore. He replaced Tomislav Ivic, a Croat who had replaced Brazilian Valdir Vieira as coach only in January. Vieira coached Iran to its first berth in the World Cup since 1978, a year before the fundamentalist revolution that overthrew Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi.

Despite pleas from Iranian and American coaches and players, the United States-Iran game, June 21 in Lyon, could never be devoid of politics. The two countries have not had diplomatic relations since the shah was thrown out and rebels held 52 Americans hostage in the U.S. Embassy in Tehran for 444 days.

Political tensions have eased recently, but just a tad, with President Clinton agreeing to waive a sanctions law to allow a large European oil investment in Iran. The Iranian public, however, is obsessed with beating the United States.

As it happens, though, Iran's other two first-round opponents are not political allies, either. Yugoslavia brings back memories of Serb treatment of Iran's fellow Muslims, the Bosnians. And Germany is where a group of Iranians was convicted last year of terrorism for a restaurant bombing, a conviction that led European Union nations to withdraw their ambassadors from Iran.

"Sports have always been associated with political life in Iran," said Christian Bromberger, a professor of anthropology at the University of Aix-en-Provence in France who spent two months in Iran this year studying the society and its national soccer team. "People would grab [Ivic] on the street and say, 'You've got to beat the United States.'"

In an interview, Talebi agreed that the Iranian people want a victory over the United States — "you can't stop people from thinking" — but said it was too bad.

"It is a very difficult and sensitive game that we are looking to play with no political reasons," he said. "The players are very excited, a little bit shaky, a little afraid. Because it is the United States, it is more pressure for them."

Adding to the pressure is that neither team has much of a chance of advancing to the round of 16 without a victory over the other.

A sober man with sad eyes, Talebi said he thought hard before accepting Iran's coaching job, and in the end took it out only of patriotism. He did not select the team, and said that if it had been up to him, he would have changed as much as 25 percent of the roster.

In addition, he said, Ivic tried to change the team too much, radically limiting its attacking style and radically strengthening its defense. The result, said Talebi, was confusion.

For his part, Ivic told the French sports newspaper L'Equipe before his firing that "our days are numbered," and that if Iran did not change its playing style "we will be laughed at in France."

After he was sacked, he told the newspaper: "For about 20 days, I've sensed a conspiracy behind my back. . . . During my last stint in Tehran, people were telling me to be careful of myself."

In the victory over Inter Milan, Talebi put the stars up front, and it paid off.

Two of the three players who play in the German League — Ali Daei and Karim Bagheri (both of Arminia Bielefeld) — scored, with Daei getting two goals. The fourth goal was by midfielder Mehdi Mahdavikia. Star forward Khodadad Azizi, the other German League player (Cologne), played only the second half, which was when Iran scored all four goals.

In the days before and after the game against Inter Milan, the Iranians bunkered into Inter's training center in the foothills of the Italian Alps, with Talebi pushing to rebuild his team and its solidarity.

"We Iranians are very emotional, we are a very close people," Talebi said. "So when we were together we talked about our feelings, we talked about our problems. It was a release for the players."

Iran's record in the pre-World Cup season has been dismal. So far this year, it has lost five times (against Nigeria, Hungary, two French pro teams and Rome), drawn once (against Chile) and won three (against Jamaica, another French pro team and Inter Milan).

Talebi's true test will begin June 14 against Yugoslavia, but one more pre-World Cup warmup also looms. It is against World Cup-bound Croatia in Zagreb on Wednesday. It remains to be seen whether former coach Ivic will be there.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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