Football: Field of California dreams

Andrew Longmore hears a fearless American dodge the political football as Iran game looms
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The Independent Online
#THE Americans, not noted for their worldly attitude to affairs of international state, have been playing down the political content of their match against Iran in Lyons today. "Frankie, have you heard the phrase 'Great Satan'?" one journalist asked last week. Frankie Hejduk can tell you anything you want to know about the surf in his native California, has a good grasp of the beach bum's lingo and a basic understanding of football tactics. But talk about the tension between two of the world's most public enemies and Frankie, for once in his life, is lost for words. "Man, I don't know what you're talking about."

Hejduk was four when the hostage crisis brought Iran and the USA within a diplomatic twitch of war in 1979. Not surprisingly, his understanding of the significance of today is framed in terms of football. To the victors a slim chance of qualification for the second round; to the losers a ticket home. Defeat by Germany in their opening match was acceptable to the US, the passive manner of it less so. Hejduk alone showed a sense of adventure, his flying near-post header forcing Andreas Kopke into his one save of the match. "Have you ever surfed?" asks Steve Sampson, the US coach. Once. I almost drowned beneath a five-footer. "Exactly, Frankie surfs in 20ft waves which can bury you. He has no fear."

Had he not been persuaded to pursue his football career on a college scholarship, Hejduk would have become a professional surfer like most of his friends. His appearance, tanned, long blondish hair, is more surf than soccer; his free spirit might conform readily to a portrait of western decadence not to the more rigorous disciplines of a football team. In January last year, Hedjuk's bags made the plane to China for the start of a US tour, but a faulty alarm clock left one empty seat and a free place in the side. The team carried his luggage around for three weeks, while Hedjuk returned to the surf and training with the Tampa Bay Mutiny.

"I just missed the alarm call. I thought: 'Shit'. I panicked. I mean no one had ever missed a plane ride before. I rang Steve [Sampson] straight away to explain and he just said: 'We'll talk when we get back'. But it was two months later before we got together. I just admitted my stupidity and persuaded him I'd like to get back on the team. I set six alarm clocks now."

Hedjuk is sitting in the courtyard of the Chateau de Pizay, 35km to the north of Lyons where the US team have pitched camp and an apartment with half-board will set you back pounds 250 a night. The chateau, with its own vineyard and chapel, is a picture of serenity in the midday sunshine. A delegation from Athletes in Action have just dropped off a boxful of videos in case the team have a "God- shaped vacuum" in their lives. Sampson receives them with courtesy. The literature will go into the training room. Satan and God and it is not yet lunchtime. If the players view today's game with a certain naivete, Sampson has no such misconceptions.

"It's going to be a very intense, physical game," he says. "This game is more important politically for us than them. We know they're going to be very motivated to beat us. I lived through the hostage crisis and my heart, like everyone else's, went out to the families of those concerned. But, at some point, we have to put that on one side and I know the governments of both countries are attempting to mend the relationship."

The fixture is as politically sensitive for Fifa, the world governing body, as for the teams. The widening franchise of the World Cup has increased the opportunity for ideological and spiritual confrontation and they have no intention of allowing their showpiece to be hijacked for political ends.

Spectators will be searched twice, once outside, once inside, the ground for political banners. The Iranians themselves might prove to be the best policemen. A vigorous correspondence on the internet followed a hardline call for Iranians to fly the flag of the Islamic Republic of Iran not the standard national flag. The message was clear: keep politics out of football. Yet, the midweek Iranian protest about the screening of the US-made film Not Without My Daughter, an ugly Hollywood-style depiction of life in Teheran, showed how easily cultural hackles can rise.

Sporting contact between the two nations has already been re-established. An American wrestling team visited Teheran last year and were overwhelmed by hospitality. The local people even wanted their pictures taken with the team, shopkeepers refused to accept money for souvenirs. A few months later, the Iranian team travelled to the US for the wrestling world cup. They too had their photographs taken, at the airport by customs officers, along with their fingerprints.

"The Americans still think we go to bed at night wondering who we will bomb in the morning," as one Iranian journalist put it. "This World Cup is important to us so that we can show that, like everyone else, we want to have a family, a decent job, something to eat and that we have a real passion for football." Far greater than a country who has been granted the honour of hosting the event, a few Iranians might think. Iran, for example, estabished a women's national league - banned since the revolution - long before the US.

In Tom Dooley and Roy Wegerle, the US have suitably old heads for the occasion. Hejduk's brand of infectious innocence could be an equally important factor for easing the tension. "Frankie wasn't a model citizen growing up, that's for sure," Sampson says. "But he brings that energy and excitement to the field. He has a wonderful attacking personality and a total lack of concern for who's on the other side." Tonight, in the Stade de Gerland, the Californian beach boy could ride the biggest wave of his young life.