Iran: Crowds hail hand of God in World Cup triumph

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Iran's football team has qualified for the World Cup finals. Robert Fisk joins the players returning from Australia to Tehran and a wild reception.

On the flight from Dubai, the crew pleaded with the passengers to sit down as they swarmed around Iran's new heroes, demanding autographs and taking snapshots of the players. No sooner had we landed than armed Revolutionary Guards, faces delirious with joy, blocked our path to the stand, along with baggage handlers and immigration officers. The Australian pilot ordered his crew not to open the doors lest the Iranians forced their way on to the plane and crushed us all.

Only when an Iranian air force helicopter taxied alongside to carry the team into town were we free to leave. In Tehran's Meherbad airport, staff stood transfixed before television screens showing the same helicopter landing in the city football stadium before a crowd of hundreds of thousands. Not since the 1979 revolution had Tehran seen anything like this.

Iran has a habit of blaming its external enemies for its setbacks and God for its successes. True to form, divine intervention was credited by several passengers with Iran's two Melbourne goals in seven minutes which secured the country's place - just - for next year's finals in France. It was the only event in which Iran was successful, another passenger announced, which was not "trammelled up with politics or Islam".

Was it so? When Iran lost to Qatar on 14 November, the enemies of newly- elected President Mohamed Khatami - including Mohamed Nateq-Nouri, the man who lost to him - suggested that the feelings of Iranians had been "deeply hurt" and that the Khatami government should "make up for it". When Iran's team arrived home, it was a beaming President Khatami who let his people know how enthusiastically he had been following the Australian match.

As for the people, they went mad for joy. A few ladies, it was said, even joined their menfolk in dancing in the streets.