Half an hour at the World Cup is enough to break down almost every national stereotype. For example, outside the stadium in Frankfurt, before Iran versus Portugal, a crowd of Iranians with beakers of lager were playing some strange drinking game. Now, I imagined a Muslim drinking game must be where one of them tips lager down a sink, while his mates chant "Down in one! - down in one!" But this lot were taking it in turns to squat on the floor, down beers and run in a circle with the vigour of any student rugby team.
Hundreds of them had green, white and red mohican wigs, and many had actual green, white and red mohicans. As a Portuguese fan with a vast stomach walked past, one such Iranian ran up to him screaming: "Hey, it's Ronaldo!" and waved a pen and paper for an autograph, to a round of applause.
Other Portuguese fans had hats made out of the baskets that bottles of Mateus Rosé come in, with a Portuguese flag sticking from a cork at the top. That's how to take the sting out of nationalism and create peace among nations. How many wars would there be if the UN insisted armies had to march into battle with a uniform made from their country's traditional local wine basket?
The route to the overwhelming stadium actually leads through the woods, and the ticket ought to have directions that say: "1) Enter, wobble and feel a bit giddy; 2) A steward will show you to your seat; 3) Say out loud once a minute 'Bloody hell - I'm at the World Cup'."
But watching football in a stadium with a roof on takes some getting used to. It feels like you're in a big house, so when a defender clears a ball into the crowd you want to shout "Oi, careful - you'll break something in a minute." One day in one of these stadiums, out of instinct, a parent will walk on to the pitch, snatch the ball and say: "What have I told you about playing with that indoors?"
I was in a neutral part of the crowd. My neighbour on one side was a Japanese man who didn't look at the game for the first 10 minutes, instead concentrating on filming it on his digital video thing. And I wondered if he was thinking: "I don't want to look, because if I know the score that will spoil it for when I watch my recording of it later."
And on the other side was the wonderful Marco. A lone Portuguese in this section, he roared and roared and roared: "Poo-too-gal! Poo-too-gal!" and occasionally stopped to shout something in my ear. "I live Luxembourg, you know, Luxembourg. See." And he showed me an official document from Luxembourg. Then "Poo-too-gal! Poo-too- my girlfriend - work for Discovery Channel - gal! Poo-too-gal!"
Already he was the most excitable person I'd ever met, then he went up a gear. "You see Maniche - he father brother son. What is word?" "Cousin," I said. "Yeeeees, he my cousin. Cousin. Cousiiiiiin!"
"And see Miguel, in midfield, I know him." Then he yelled "Hey, Miguel - Miguel, Meegwelll!" as if he'd spotted a friend on the other side of the street. Then he shook his head in exasperation because Miguel wasn't responding, as if he was likely to run off the pitch, come up and say: "Hi, Marco. How's life in Luxembourg? I saw your girlfriend's programme about leopards."
When Deco scored from 20 yards, Marco put one hand on each side of my head and shook it so violently I thought I'd end up as a cocktail. And all to the sound of "Goooowwww-aaaaaaeeeo-o-oolll! Hey Miguel Meegweeelll! "
Ten minutes from the end Figo was tripped and Cristiano Ronaldo prepared to take the penalty. I thought: "Please, please, please miss; if you score I'll be up the osteopaths for a month." Ronaldo struck it beautifully, so I dived quicker than the Iranian goalkeeper had, but Marco was too quick and down came the hands. This time as well as side to side my head went diagonally and vertically and some new direction I'd never heard of before.
On the tram back I discussed the match with a gay Iranian couple, one of whom wore a very tight white T-shirt and spoke with impressive authority about the problems with the Iranian midfield, in a camp and slightly American accent. If I'm ever asked to make one of those lists of 50 things you should do before you die, one will be "Discuss how to move quickly on the break with gay Iranians on a tram". The problem with Iran, apparently, is it needs modernising. But England is some way from having a football pundit who says: "You back off a player like Figo in the final third, believe me, honey, you're so dead."
One glance at this crowd was enough to realise the trend amongst Iranians away from a strict religious culture must have seemed rapid and unstoppable. And that it's taken an idiot of George Bush proportions, with his declaration that they're part of the "axis of evil", to find a way of making them reverse the trend by closing ranks and standing defiantly for their old traditions. If only their defence had done the same they might not have lost 2-0, and I might still be able to move my neck.Reuse content