Football: Football conquers hate in Lyons

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The Independent Online
IN ALL my years of playing and watching football I have never known anything close to the atmosphere in Lyons on Saturday evening when the USA played Iran.

The noise from the Iranian fans was at a consistency you do not associate with a football game. There were no natural pauses or silences, just fluctuations in the volume between "very loud" and "deafening".

I had the misfortune to have BBC identification on my press pass, so almost every Iranian was bent on explaining all the subtle intricacies of Iranian politics to me - quantum physics is child's play in comparison. I think I got to the fourth faction before realising that it was a futile exercise and I was better off concentrating on the game. This wasn't difficult because it had everything you would hope for on the field and then some.

Whether the hype or the extraordinary media frenzy before the game had an effect I'm not sure, but the Americans flew at the shocked Iranian defence from the start. Brian McBride, Joe-Max Moore and Claudio Reyna all shot very dangerously from distance, and Frankie Hejduc, the "soccer surfer", put enough energy into his early right wing overlaps to make you wonder if he should have been drug-tested after the game.

At the back, the US team looked less assured. David Regis, the proud owner of a green card for nearly two whole months now, looked desperate to add yellow and red ones to his collection. Clumsiness abounded and even Kasey Keller was fortunate to stay on the park after Khodadad Azizi showed another lightning turn of pace. The referee's only mistakes of the evening were not to give a penalty or sending off after that.

Azizi immediately looked the player with real class in the Iranian ranks; this probably had much to do with the ridiculous Da-Glo boots he was sporting. But as he pirouetted round the American defenders it became easy to see why he was the Asian player of the year two seasons ago, and why the sponsors singled him out for the frightening footwear.

Ali Daei, his old-fashioned English-style centre-forward partner, hustled and bustled to some effect but as the game wore on, it became obvious who the real star of the team was.

The 21-year-old Mehdi Mahdavikia of Iranian club Pirouzi Tehran is rumoured to be on the move to China. This is very unlikely after his display against the Americans. Fifteen minutes into the game I could just imagine Bundesliga scouts flicking through their electronic Filofaxes to find out whether Mehdi has an agent. By half-time the Spaniards were probably on the case, and by the time he scored Iran's stunning second goal, Serie A was looking the most likely destination.

I've rarely been so impressed on the first viewing of a young player. He played like Andre Kanchelskis, only better, and with a bit more pace too. Granted it was only against the United States, but the intelligence of his movement was of the very highest order.

If there had been a player of true international class supporting him, who had vision and who could pass, Mahdavikia could have scored five or six. Before he did score his goal the Iranians had deservedly gone ahead through an Hamid Estili header. The Americans then dominated the Iranians for the rest of the game only to succumb to the sucker punch of a breakaway goal. The US could still have clawed their way back on to level terms after their late consolation goal, but defensive naivety was their downfall.

Iran conversely looked very assured, particularly in the centre of their defence where three confident markers, led by the veteran Nader Mohammadkhani, soaked up constant pressure from the Americans.

On this form Iran may still pose a threat to a German side that, though still exuding passion with efficiency, have begun to show the first signs of wear and tear. It will be no walkover and the Iranians will once again be backed by that incredible if slightly confusing crowd.

By the end of Tuesday night's match, I like everyone else there felt exhausted but exhilarated. This was one of those unforgettable nights in World Cup history. A game of excitement from start to finish, played in front of a crowd who added at least as much to the game as the players did themselves. In fact the Iranians were so loud that the commendable number of travelling Americans could not make themselves heard, and it isn't often you can say that.

For all the poignant moments however, including every American and Iranian perfectly observing each other's national anthem, the ability of football to transcend everything will be the lasting memory.

The atmosphere, though charged, still remained friendly. Some journalists may want to paint a darker picture, but everyone I met there will remember this balmy evening for as long as they live, for the most positive of reasons.