Iran vanquish bitter rivals

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The Independent Online

Iran beat their bitter rivals Iraq 2-1 in a politically-charged World Cup qualifier in Tehran yesterday, putting them on course for next year's finals in South Korea and Japan.

If Iran, now top of Asia's Group A by one point from Saudi Arabia, beat Bahrain in their final game on 19 October, they will qualify automatically for the finals.

The striker Mehdi Mahdavikia opened the scoring for Iran in the 27th minute from a pass by Ali Karimi but Iraq's Qahtan Chathir equalised in the 52nd minute from a corner. Iran sealed victory in the 71st minute when Karimi scored from a Mahdavikia pass, sending 100,000 flag-waving spectators at the Azadi stadium wild with joy.

Saudi Arabia also play Thailand on 19 October. The second-placed side play against the runners-up in Group B for the right to take on the Republic Ireland for a place in the finals.

Iran and Iraq fought a ruinous war from 1980 to 1988 in which close to a million people were killed. A broadcaster for Iranian television drew parallels yesterday between the match and the war. "Our youth have brought the country many glories, especially when the war was going on," he said.

The countries have not signed a peace treaty and are still at loggerheads over a host of issues, including the repatriation of the prisoners of war. They also accuse each other of backing rebels from the other country. The Iranian player Hamed Kavianpour said: "This victory is doubly sweet for us because it is against a country with which we have had many problems and still do."

The Republic of Ireland manager Mick McCarthy has welcomed Fifa's decision to make next month's play-off against Asian opponents a two-leg affair, with the first match in Dublin.

On Thursday football's world governing body confirmed that the first leg will go ahead as scheduled at Lansdowne Road on 10 November. "It's a real bonus for our marvellous Irish fans with the first game being in Dublin. They have been magnificent throughout our Group Two unbeaten qualifying campaign," McCarthy said.

Fifa have indicated that the second leg of the Republic's play-off may yet be switched to a neutral country, should the current situation of military conflict in the Middle East and Asia escalate.

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