Love of the game unites the great Satan and the underdog

Football: World Cup
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The Independent Online
"I'M BEHIND you," said the Moroccan man in the croque monsieur stand at Lyons' Perrache station. "The whole Muslim community is behind you. Allez Iran!"

Walking through the elegant streets of Lyons yesterday you would have been forgiven for thinking Iran was the world superpower and America the underdog pariah. The central Place Carnot was awash with the red, white and green of Iranian flags, caps and T-shirts, the air full of folksongs and chants. McDonald's and Quick Burger were buzzing with the Farsi conversational equivalant of "d'you think they'll play Anderton or Beckham tonight?"

In a scene straight out of French National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Penn's nightmares, the streets of France's third city were emptied of white faces: the white French appeared to have gone away for the weekend, and the few Americans wandering around seemed bemused by the vociferous and humorous choruses of "ooh-ah-Mahdavikia" belted out by the (considerable contingent) of Manchester United supporting Iranian fans.

By Pizza Pino, a young Iranian couple with matching facepaint stopped a bunch of star-spangled-bannered Americans for a photo-shoot. They stood together, flag next to flag, a gendarme clicked, and history of a sort was made: after the snap they exchanged handshakes, hugs and agreements that the best team should win.

It was, for many, something of a catharsis, though through cultural pervasion and travel, Iranians know Americans a lot better than many Americans know Iran.

"You come here from Iran?" a flag-bedecked North Carolinan inquired of me in the wash rooms of the Hippo Grill. No, London really, but I was born in Iran. "Well, ya speak really good English!" he said, grinning cheerily and shaking my hand.

Outside, three Iranian dudes with Raybans and slicked back hair were courting a group of giggling, all-American cheerleader types. "That one's really cute," they agreed. The football seemed irrelevant.

What had been billed as a great reconciliation, or a great confrontation (depending on who you believed), was certainly not the latter and perhaps for some people, it will be a new beginning.

Many of the Iranians, though, were more LA than Tehran: among the considerable contingent of female Iran supporters it was hard to spot a woman in Islamic hijab, the preferred uniform seeming to be DKNY T-shirts and Calvin Klein shorts.

In the end, it wasn't as battle of Islam against the great Satan, more a meeting of people who are more similar than some of their politicians would ever want them to believe.

Outside the stadium, a gaggle of horn-blowing, whistle-screeching Iran fans wearing tricolor hats marched down a narrow street towards a stars- and-stripes band playing the Star Spangled Banner.

Would there be a third Gulf War? No chance. The band and the whistles fired up again and the mixed crowd began singing "USA and Iran, USA and Iran, USA and Iran."

Iran reform setback,

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