Hancock's inside story on slaying of the Great Satan

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THERE HAVE been enough World Cup documentaries these past few weeks to last us till 2002, but what one hopes was the last has claim to be among the best.

This is despite the fact that Outsiders (Channel 4, Sunday) appeared on the face of it to be suffering from a considerable handicap - the presence of Nick Hancock, whose foul mouth and incessant insults on They Think It's All Over have finally stopped being funny and become merely tiresome (which goes to show there is only so far you can go with bad language before it begins to grate and lose its power).

The reason the documentary, which centred on the Iranian squad, worked so beautifully was the fact that during the course of it, Hancock (who is married to an Iranian) and his co-presenter Andy Smart lost their hearts to the team described by Hancock as "the last team to qualify, 500-1 outsiders, and the only country not to have a Chelsea player in their squad."

Their odyssey begins at the Italian embassy in Tehran, at a reception for the Iranian team, who are off the next day to training camp in Milan. Then it's on to the home of one of the players, Hamid Estilli, whose family are having a party to see him off.

"They treated us like honoured guests," says Hancock. It was "uncomfortable, being so close to such an intimate occasion. It changed me in ways I never expected," says Hancock, affected by the "unforgettable sombreness and dignity". By the time they go to the airport to see the squad off, it's with the zeal of converts.

Over in Italy, the Croatian coach, Tomislav Ilic, has been sacked after a 7-1 defeat to Inter reserves, and the boys fear losing the access he had allowed them. But his replacement, Jalal Talibi, who, despite looking like Christopher Lee outdoes even the Croatian in the charm stakes. He is urbane and candid as he explains what went on with Ilic.

"We don't accept foreigners very fast," he says. "We have to know people... the feeling is much more important for us. Mr Ilic didn't know how to make contact with the players - he was far away from them, both emotionally and intellectually."

Over in France, they stick with the team as they prepare for their first game, against Yugoslavia, in an atmosphere of "eerie intensity and calm". They are more than just programme makers by this point.

"We cared," says Hancock. "We were really really really bothered - something we hadn't expected."

During the game itself they go native, joining in a chant that bears the subtitle "Stick the tap of a samovar up your arse". When Yugoslavia score from a free-kick, they despair.

At the chateau in Yssingeaux where the team is staying (given the fact that it doubles as the National Patisserie Centre, perhaps winning the World Cup should have been a piece of cake), Hancock and Smart attempt to cheer up the players, who are angry over a showing on French TV the night before of the movie Not Without My Daughter, which portrays Tehran as a Nightmare City and the Iranians as devils. Subbuteo is the answer, though H 'n' S have to paint their own Iranian team over breakfast (which, in Smart's case, does not amount to much: "A cigarette does not represent all the major food groups," Hancock tells him).

They get to know the players well - Azizi, for example, called "Suzuki" by his team-mates because he's small but makes a lot of noise. As the lads play a game of foot-volleyball with two of the squad, the integration is near complete. They are less like TV presenters, more like groupies.

Smart goes back to Tehran while Hancock sticks around in France. In Lyons, the team spend their time on the coach on the way to their confrontation with the Great Satan, the United States, mostly reading the Koran as religious music plays softly. In a nice sequence of cuts back and forth between France and Iran, the film builds the tension. Andy is in a restaurant smoking from a hookah. "For what unfolded over the next 90 minutes," Hancock says on the voice-over, "Valium would have been a better option."

When Iran score, Hancock explodes, bug-eyed. By the end of a draining, nerve-racking game (one of the most exciting games of the entire competition, even for neutrals), it's as if he was at the Britannia Stadium watching his beloved Stoke: "Those boys have done me proud out there today," he says.

In Tehran, Andy joins the three million on the streets. They might not get drunk there, but they still know how to party. Back at the hotel, Hancock greets every one of the returning heroes with a sizable smacker.

Before the final group game, against Germany, Hancock hangs out with the team. You can tell all objectivity has gone out of the window when he wraps up an interview with Hamid by saying, "I'm shaking the hand of the most famous man in the world," and appearing to mean every word of it.

At the game, it all goes horribly wrong, and the Germans prevail. By the end, Hancock is gutted. "I fell like I could sleep for two weeks," he says.

Despite returning at three in the morning, the team have a riotous welcome at Tehran airport, and even Smart is mobbed and raised shoulder high. Hancock is with the team, and the pair take Hamid home for an emotional 14-hour celebration. The experience has changed them, and they have clearly derived huge pride from their experience. Can we have more of this kind of thing from Hancock, and less of that (expletive deleted) They Think It's All Over?