Teams' spirit spreads to the fans

Published Jun. 22, 1998|Updated Sep. 13, 2005

Some feared the World Cup soccer game between the United States and Iran would be a source of tension.

Instead, it turned into a love fest _ between the two countries, at least. The players couldn't have been nicer to each other; the American and Iranian fans mingled with good cheer.

The game did spark confrontations, but they were between opposing Iranian factions.

Amazed Americans beamed to hear their supposed foes chanting, "U-S-A," and not adding, "Down with," before it.

"We've never really stopped being friends, whatever the governments did," said Afsaneh, a London architect who withheld her last name for fear of reprisals to her family. She held aloft a huge heart, with Iran and the U.S. sharing equal space.

The political leaders of the two countries exchanged pleasantries, though Iran's spiritual leader took a hard line.

In a statement before the game, President Clinton said, "As we cheer today's game between American and Iranian athletes, I hope it can be another step toward ending the estrangement between our nations."

After Iran won 2-1, in a message to the Iranian team, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said: "Tonight again, the strong and arrogant opponent felt the bitter taste of defeat at your hands. Be happy that you have made the Iranian nation happy."

Moderate President Mohammad Khatami congratulated the Iranian players.

In Iran, throngs officially estimated in the millions took to the streets and clogged them at 1:30 a.m., blowing horns, dancing and chanting.

At 3:30 a.m. in Tehran, a city where it is usually difficult to find a restaurant open after midnight, car horns were still blaring.

The real conflict of the day was between Iranians in the stands of the Stade de Gerland. The game 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.

Fistfights, scuffles, flag-waving and sign-carrying punctuated the game. French police officers forcibly removed many spectators, tore down banners and confiscated posters with political messages.

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. 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 Mujahadeen Khalq. The dissidents are opposed to the Islamic government of Khatami; a "Death to Khatami" 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.

Security outside the Stade de Gerland was mercilessly tight. Spectators had to go through three or more checkpoints, and some were searched. At each checkpoint, English and Farsi-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. 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.