Football: World Cup - American fear of the penalty

Click to follow
If the USA team go ahead and play against Iran as scheduled in the World Cup next year, strictly speaking they will be breaking American law. In 1995, to quote an official White House document, "President Clinton imposed comprehensive sanctions on Iran, prohibiting all commercial and financial transactions with Iran."

The only way the Group F qualifying game on 21 June in Lyons could avoid being characterised as a commercial transaction would be if it was held in an empty stadium without TV cameras and the players performed for free. Otherwise the American fans in the crowd, the American broadcasters who carry the game and the Americans on the pitch might be advised to ponder the notion of seeking political asylum in France.

That, on the other hand, might be precisely the thought in the minds of some of the Iranian team should they suffer the ignominy of defeat at the hands of the red-bearded Alexei Lalas and the rest of the representatives of "the Great Satan". As Lalas observed on Friday, "for Iran, to beat the US would be like winning the World Cup".

For Iran to lose would be a national calamity the intensity of which no other team participating in the World Cup could possibly imagine. And what if the margin of defeat were to be decided by an Iranian own goal? Images of Andres Escobar, the Colombian player murdered after the last World Cup, and of Salman Rushdie, the author with a "fatwah" over his head, come uncomfortably to mind.

For while in footballing terms the Iran-USA game offers little to get the pulse racing, as a political clash it promises to generate more energy than any sporting event since El Salvador and Honduras played a World Cup qualifier in 1968 so hostile that it led to all-out war.

The memory of 1979 when Iranian militants stormed the US Embassy in Tehran and held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days still burns bright in the collective superpower memory. Since then, the two countries have had no diplomatic relations and have been locked in an unending war of words. The US describes Iran as an "outlaw state" that sponsors terrorism in the Middle East. The walls of government buildings in Iran are plastered with posters that read "Death to America".

Steve Sampson, the USA coach, has already begun the exercise of trying to defuse tensions. "We will try not to allow the political ramifications to influence our preparation," he said on Friday. "I hope we can use the game to bring the two countries closer together."

Fat chance, if the words of Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati are anything to go by. During a radio sermon on Friday, the head of the Iranian parliament's Guardian Council had this to say about the relatively tender World Cup encounter last weekend between Iran and Australia: "If our team had failed, our enemies would have said, 'Islam is incapable of running a state'. It was truly a political matter. The result was, therefore, a political victory."

Sampson and all those who dream that sport can be separated from politics can kid themselves all they want. The Iran-USA game will be holy war by other means.