Political Football Americans will experience the deep-seated nationalism of World Cup play when the U.S. meets Iran in an emotional test for both sides

June 01, 1998
June 01, 1998

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June 1, 1998

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Political Football Americans will experience the deep-seated nationalism of World Cup play when the U.S. meets Iran in an emotional test for both sides

The former U.S. embassy in downtown Tehran now appears to be an
abandoned estate. The lamps that once illuminated the main
entrance are shattered; the American eagle emblem on the front
gate is defaced and looks like an ancient artifact. A visitor
peering through the gate sees no movement inside the walls, but
there is one telltale sign of life--the open sewer that runs
from the compound to the street is full of burbling brown water.
The compound has, in a facile irony, been converted by the
Islamic Republic of Iran into a training academy for its elite
Revolutionary Guards.

This is an article from the June 1, 1998 issue Original Layout

For an American, standing at the gate of this compound is like
standing before a headstone that marks a U.S. tragedy that
occurred almost 19 years ago--66 American hostages in
blindfolds, the frenzied chants of the Iranian mob as the U.S.
flag was set ablaze. The words of the Ayatullah Khomeini, dead
since 1989, are still painted in thick black letters on the
brick wall that surrounds the compound: WE WILL MAKE AMERICA

When Khomeini's government finally released the hostages on Jan.
20, 1981, after 444 days in captivity, most Americans washed
their hands of Iran. The two countries aren't on speaking terms
officially--Iran still calls the U.S. the Great Satan; America
accuses Iran of sponsoring terrorism--but on June 21 in Lyon,
France, in a first-round World Cup match arranged by lottery,
they will meet on the playing field. The enmity promises to make
this much more than just another low-scoring soccer game: It
will be the first chance for most Americans to view soccer
through the prism of fervent nationalism that makes the World
Cup tournament so provocative for the rest of the world.

While some Iranians see this match as an opportunity to further
punish the Great Satan, most have a more pragmatic goal--they
merely want their team to play well enough to earn the respect
of the American people and the international community from
which they have been cut off since Khomeini's Islamic
fundamentalists came to power. Soccer is the one activity that
transcends all the religious and political differences in Iran.
"The U.S. embassy was about a block and a half from a major
stadium where they used to play soccer matches," recalls Bruce
Laingen, who was U.S. charge d'affaires when he and the other
Americans were taken hostage and who is now president of the
American Academy of Diplomacy in Washington, D.C. "We could hear
their cheers coming over the walls, whether they were
celebrating a win or bemoaning a loss." Even now, children pour
out of classroom windows at recess to claim a rectangle of
asphalt for their daily game; men and boys commandeer the
streets for what we would call pickup games, forcing traffic to
either wait or find a detour.

As is true in virtually every country except Canada and the
United States, soccer has become an expression of national
character and identity in Iran. The efficiency and discipline of
the German armies is now exhibited by that country's national
soccer teams. The Italians play with elegant, classical style.
The English, to quote Churchill, "will never surrender." The
Brazilians, the defending World Cup champions, play to a musical
rhythm that no coach can teach--and this is much like the
approach of the Iranians. They play their soccer in the streets,
on basketball courts, even on highway medians; need and passion
have bred ingenuity.

"I learned to play with the metal cap from a bottle of
Coca-Cola," says Dr. Vahid Karbasi, 34, a pediatric intern at
the Ali Asghar Hospital in Tehran. "It was important that the
bottle be opened carefully so that the cap remained flat. After
school four of us would play, two against two, with the bottle
cap. I learned to make accurate passes of 10 to 20 yards."

The tale of the Khabiri brothers, heroes of the national team in
the 1970s, has been woven into a modern Iranian legend. Mohammad
was the introverted intellectual, Habib the charismatic
extrovert. Mohammad played on the national team until 1976, when
he came to the U.S. to study. (Others say he feared persecution
by the shah's secret police.) Habib remained in Iran and became
a national hero when he scored a dramatic goal from 40 yards out
in a '78 World Cup qualifying match against Kuwait.

"Habib was the Iranian Kobe Bryant," says Manook Khodabakhshian,
who was then a soccer announcer in Iran and now produces and
hosts an Iranian radio show in Los Angeles. "Sometimes when I
watch Kobe Bryant, I see Habib Khabiri. He was only 16 or 17
when he started to play for the national team. He was a very
creative player. So young, such a happy guy."

In 1979 the shah abdicated and the fundamentalists took over.
Habib, who had apparently fallen under the political sway of one
of his teammates, Hassan Nayeb-Ajha (now a leader of the leftist
muslim guerrilla Mujahedin forces based in Iraq trying to topple
the Islamic fundamentalists), was eventually arrested. For
several years he was one of Iran's "disappeared," lost in that
country's gulag. Legend has it that the authorities repeatedly
offered to set him free if he would denounce the Mujahedin, but
Habib refused. Sometime in 1984, Habib was told that he would be
set free the next morning. But when he was awakened, Habib was
led out to the Wall of Allah Akhbar--Arabic for "God is
great"--where he was executed. There has never been official
acknowledgement of his death, which only intensifies the potency
of his story.

Mohammad, who says he returned to Iran shortly after Habib's
death, is understandably reluctant to discuss his brother, but
many young Iranians openly revere Habib Khabiri. "They don't
think of him as a terrorist, as a Mujahedin," says
Khodabakhshian. "They talk of him the way Americans talk of
James Dean, the rebel without the cause."

Ali Parvin, who operates a small automobile dealership in
downtown Tehran, was one of the greatest players Iran has known.
He was the playmaker for the national team in the '70s, and if
public sentiment had prevailed, he would still be coaching the

He held that job five years ago when Iran attempted to qualify
for the 1994 World Cup, which was held in the U.S. His team
played badly in regional qualifying and was beaten by two of
Iran's other great political enemies, Saudi Arabia and Iraq.
Parvin, who did not leave his hotel room for 48 hours after the
final defeat, was fired by the Iranian Soccer Federation a few
days later.

Yet Parvin's reputation could not be deflated so easily.
Portraits of Khomeini are everywhere in Tehran--on billboards,
painted on the sides of buildings, in framed pictures hung on
the walls of every government and commercial office, printed on
the money--but it is Parvin of whom the people speak most
affectionately. To this day his name is sung in the 100,000-seat
stadium of his former club, Perspolis. "Ali-aaaay Parveen!" This
even though he has not visited a stadium in two years.

Without Parvin's leadership, the national team was in disarray.
The new coach, Mohammad Mayeli Kohan, seems to have been chosen
more for his politics than his soccer knowledge, and there were
reports of a fistfight in the dressing room between Kohan and
some of his players. Some Iranians even suggested that their
government was happy to see the team fail. After the 1979
revolution, the Islamists controlling the government frowned on
soccer, considering it an unhealthy intrusion from the West.
Some hard-liners argue that the U.S. is using the upcoming World
Cup match as a ploy to humanize Americans and break down the
political will of the Iranian people.

Despite this turmoil and intrigue, Iran displayed a strong
offense during early qualifying matches and only needed to beat
a patsy, Qatar, to secure a berth in the upcoming World Cup.
Qatar had never scored a goal against Iran, but on Nov. 7, 1997,
Qatar won 2-0. In Iran three fans died of heart attacks while
watching the match on television. Kohan was fired the next day,
and a Brazilian, Valdeir Vieira, was hired to coach a team made
up of players who had, like many Brazilians, learned the game on
the streets. With the exception of three who play in Germany's
Bundesliga--the attackers Khodadad Azizi, Karim Bagheri and Ali
Daei--the players compete in Iran's semipro league.

Just three weeks after losing to Qatar, Iran scored two
miraculous goals in the last 14 minutes of regulation to move
past Australia and qualify for the final berth in the 32-team
World Cup field. Millions of Iranians burst into the streets to
celebrate. Young women were seen brazenly pulling off their
black scarves, dancing with men and in some cases drinking
alcohol in defiance of Islamic law. This street party went on
for hours--and the authorities did not try to stop any of it. To
do so would have been unpatriotic. Instead, they fired Vieira.
He had become too popular, and therefore too dangerous.

In the first week of May in Tehran, devout Muslims marked the
Islamic Shiite holiday of Ashura. Men wore black mourning
clothes in recognition of the martyr Husayn, grandson of the
prophet Muhammad, who was among those massacred at the Battle of
Karbala in 680 A.D.; thousands of men and boys marched through
the streets to the beating of drums while whipping their own
backs in penance with heavy strands of chain. At the same time,
in the city's alleys, in its public parks and even on the
grounds of the new holy shrine to Khomeini, children and men
were playing soccer.

In the gorgeous Laleh Park, a group of young men playing soccer
on this somber holy day say they are looking forward to the
World Cup because it is an opportunity to begin a nonpolitical
relationship with Americans. Their complaints, they emphasize,
are with the government of the U.S., not with its people. They
know of America only from satellite television and contraband
videos, and what they hear from relatives who live there.

On the night of June 21, the streets of Tehran will be empty as
people crowd around the most revolutionary of all Western
inventions, their televisions, to watch the match against the
U.S. Most observers say the Iranian team has little chance of
prevailing, partly because it has few world-class players but
also because it is still roiling with controversy. In January
the Iranian Soccer Federation hired yet another coach, Tomislav
Ivic of Croatia, who has coached several top clubs in Europe,
but after a 7-1 exhibition loss on May 19, he was fired and
replaced by Jalal Talebi, his Iranian assistant. The team has
now gone through four coaches in seven months.

Just a few weeks before getting sacked, Ivic was in the lobby of
Tehran's Laleh Hotel trying to explain soccer tactics to the
president of the Iranian Soccer Federation, a political
appointee who knows little about the game. "This is the way to
beat the Americans!" Ivic shouted in his zeal to share some of
his wisdom and experience. Unimpressed, the president walked out
accompanied by his righthand man, Mohammad Khabiri, the brother
of Habib. As a vice president of the federation, Mohammad is an
official in the fundamentalist government that executed his
brother, drawing his political power--as Habib did--from soccer,
the simplest game and the world's most complicated sport.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY SIMON BRUTY BIGGER THAN KHOMEINI Islamists deem it decadent, but Iranians are zealous about soccer. [Four men playing soccer in front of mural of Ayatullah Khomeini]COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY SIMON BRUTY DAMN YANKS Anti-American rhetoric is still big in Iran, which puts extra pressure on star forward Khodadad Azizi (right) as his team prepares for its match with the U.S. [Building painted with mural reading "DOWN WITH THE USA"]COLOR PHOTO: WILLIAM WEST/AFP [See caption above--Khodadad Azizi shaking hands with crowd of Iranian soccer fans]
Some hard-liners argue that the U.S. is using the World Cup
match as a ploy to humanize Americans and break down the
political will of Iranians.