Football: Iranians face their moment of history

Iran against the United States is billed as a grudge match, but it could finish with grudging respect; United States v Iran: Match between political adversaries provides added spice to a must-win situation in Group F
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MEHRDAD MASOUDI has lived his life by World Cups. The genius of the 1970 Brazilian side emerged dimly through the flickering waves of a black and white television set at his uncle's house in Tehran, stirring an interest in football which has turned into a passion.

Ten days before the start of the 1986 World Cup which he was due to report for a national newspaper, Masoudi was forced to leave his homeland. "For personal reasons", he says, discouraging further questions. He arrived at his new accommodation in Cambridge on June 5th in the middle of the Argentina-Italy match: "The first question I asked was not `Where should I sleep' or `What is there to eat?' I wanted to know the score." One-one, Maradona and Altobelli (penalty). Masoudi is Iran's Statto.

A love for football has been the one constant thread running through a complex tapestry. At high school, he was threatened with expulsion for playing football during prayer time. In the Iran-Iraq war, when some Iraqi prisoners said their favourite sport was football, he organised a tournament. For the last three years, he has been working as media officer for the Canadian Soccer Federation. Now, as Fifa liaison officer in Lyon, he has been pitched into a match between the two halves of his life which will test the healing powers of football to the limit.

Iraq has superseded Iran as Public Enemy No 1 in middle America. Both sides are trying to neutralise relations for the first time in 19 years. But temperatures still run high over the treatment of US hostages in 1979 just as the idiom of the Satanic West still lingers over certain quarters of Tehran. "Whenever the US and Iran enter the same sentence, there are political overtones, whether it is sport or anything else," Masoudi says.

When Iran qualified for the World Cup, the whole of Iran took to the streets, precipitating a wave of liberation which reminded Western observers of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Young women shed their veils and danced in the street, alcohol was drunk openly in the neighbourhood and the revolutionary guards, under the control of the militant Islamic fundamentalists, were instructed to stay inside their barracks.

More than 80,000 people greeted the team at the national stadium, 5,000 of them women who forced down a gate to get in. The chant that day was: "Az Jam-e Jahani, Be Jame-eh Jahani", which roughly translated means "From the World Cup to the people of the world." Among the younger generation largely responsible for the rise to power of the more moderate President Khatami, Iran's presence in the World Cup was a chance not to reawaken old differences, but promote similarities.

Trying to unpick the complex set of motives in the minds of the Iranian team this past week would have defied the most astute of diplomats. A press conference on Tuesday by three senior players - Ali Reza Mansourian, Khodadad Azizi and Mohammad Khakpour - was devoted entirely to accusations against the French government over the broadcast of the US-made film Not Without my Daughter on an independent television station, seemingly unaware that their protest highlighted the paranoia rather than the discourtesy. As it was, Azizi threatened not to wear his bright yellow Fifa Fair Play cap again in this tournament. Tomorrow, by happy chance, is Fifa Fair Play day.

"It is imperative that we win against the US," Azizi said. "For historical reasons, our country is a lot more sensitive to this meeting. Iran has been disappointed by American politics in recent years. This is the most important match of my life." Mansourian, one of four members of the squad playing professionally in the West, is better versed in the art of taking each game as it comes. "This will be a match like any other even if many think otherwise," he says. "Thanks to the World Cup, the whole world can discover our country. We realise that we are ambassadors. Back home all that counts is the game."

Masoudi returned to Iran for the first time in 11 years last summer. "Iran is a young country and football is the only source of public enjoyment, the only place where authority can be openly flouted and people can express themselves freely. They can jeer the coach and even the Minister of Sport without fear. In other countries football has been used by the politicians for propaganda. With us, football is manipulating the politicians."

President Khatami has sent a message of goodwill to the Iranian team. The Islamic fundamentalists, who wanted to ban football after the revolution, have largely been silent. The only conflict between religion and sport came on the eve of their opening game against Yugoslavia which coincided with the 40th day of observance of the death of Imam Hussain. The three- hour ceremony lasted until after 11pm, much to the annoyance of the coach, Jalal Talebi.

Yesterday, Talebi took pains to diffuse the tension over the film. The team would, he said, offer a rose to each of the American players before the match just as they did to the Yugoslavs. "And we will exchange shirts afterwards too. We will not be changing any of our routine just because it's the US. We need to win because our last game against Germany will be the hardest."

The Iranian team were guests of honour at a special Persian dinner in the sports hall in Yssingeaux last Wednesday night. The Mayor wished for a final between Iran and France, the diners stamped their feet and the children waved Iranian flags. "The people of Iran just want the politicians to leave football alone," Mahsoudi concludes. "The players want to do well for themselves as much as anyone. If Iran wins, the people will dance in the streets, not for beating the US, but in celebration at our first- ever win in the World Cup." He will log the date, June 21 1998.