Football World Cup: United States hoping to build bridges

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The Independent Online
Alan Rothenberg, the United States Soccer Federation president, hopes that his national side's World Cup first-round game against Iran may be used to build bridges. "Maybe we can have soccer diplomacy like we had ping-pong diplomacy with China," he said yesterday.

The States and Iran have been enemies since the Islamic revolution toppled the American-backed Shah in 1979 and 52 hostages were held at the US Embassy in Tehran for 444 days. Eighteen years later, the nations have not resumed diplomatic relations.

"I don't think President Clinton is going to that game," the US captain, John Harkes, said yesterday.

Both teams will attempt to avoid the political distractions. "The meaning of Fifa [the game's world governing body] is peace and unity," the Iranian football federation president, Dariush Mostafavi, said. "We are thinking only of soccer, not politics. We are friends of the people of the USA. However, I think we have a chance of beating the United States because they are definitely not better than us."

"I don't think it's the group of death," the US coach, Steve Sampson, said. "I think there are one or two more groups that are stronger than ours."

The Romanian captain, Gheorghe Hagi, will retire from international football after next year's World Cup finals.

"Hagi has played for 18 years at the greatest level of soccer and this will be enough for him," his agent, Giovanni Becali, said yesterday.

Hagi, 32, led his team-mates to the World Cup quarter-finals in 1994. During the qualifying rounds, he reached a record 32 goals for Romania. His next game will be his 108th for his country.