World Cup: Iran shatter American dream

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The Independent Online
United States 1 McBride 87 Iran 2 Estili 40, Mahdavikia 84 Att: 44,000

IRAN won, the USA lost. That the result was only football, that the phrase "US, go home" had no wider significance than the World Cup, was in some way a tribute to a crazy, frenzied night which began with Frank Sinatra and an exchange of flowers and ended in swapped shirts and a cacophony of drums and horns.

There was trouble in the crowd, a minor skirmish on the pitch amid the exaggerated handshakes and the riot police formed a dark blue barrier in front of the more vociferous section of the 30,000-strong Iranian crowd. But Fifa's Fair Play Day just about survived intact and Iran will play Germany in their final group match with flickering hopes of an upset.

In the midst of it all, the Iranians played the more controlled football, once they had conquered their nerves, and took two of their limited chances with aplomb. The US dominated large parts of the game, particularly the second half, and hit the post and bar in the first half, but paid for their lack of a goalscorer and for a moment's inexperience as they pushed forward in a frantic last 10 minutes. Brian McBride finally squeezed home a header, but goals by Hamid Estili in the first half and Mehdi Mahdavikia seven minutes from time ensured a night of celebration in Tehran and Lyons.

Trying to sieve the football from the politics was never going to be easy on such a night. With three-quarters of the 45,000 capacity crowd inside the Stade Gerland a frenzied sea of green, white and red, the atmosphere was more Tehran than Tucson. Different factions, some loyal to President Khatami, others wearing t-shirts emblazoned with pictures of Maryani Rajavi, the wife of a Mujaadin leader and a symbol of the hated Islamic Republic for Iranian exiles, traded insults. French plain clothes police, edgily in control of a situation they appeared not to understand, stirred trouble by throwing away banners and flags.

The pre-match formalities, orchestrated by Fifa, contained enough genuine warmth to suggest the whispered sweet nothings of the week had not been entirely disingenuous. The Iranians misjudged their applause for the US national anthem, clapping before the final stanza. The "Star Spangled Banner" has not been heard much on the streets of Tehran over the past 20 years.

The Iranian players handed white lilies to the American players, who replied with a pennant. A joint photograph, red intermingled with white, flashed around the world, symbol of what Madeleine Albright, Secretary of State, had hoped earlier in the week would be a new era in US-Iran relations.

It did not last long into a hectic opening. The Swiss referee had to wait three minutes for the first foul, but Mehrdad Minavand Chal's scything tackle on Frankie Hejduk, which earned a yellow card, betrayed the tension already evident on the faces of the young Iranians.

The Americans, settling more quickly, could have been ahead twice in the first half. After 20 minutes McBride headed the irrepressible Hejduk's cross against the crossbar and 12 minutes later a shot by Claudio Reyna hit Ahmad Abedzadeh's left-hand post.

Slowly, in answer to their supporters' urgent cries, Iran began to add some coherence to their attack and Khodadad Azizi's pace, a constant threat, forced Kasey Keller into a desperate lunge outside his area. Azizi fell, every faction in Iran claimed the penalty, which was denied by the referee. No Persian phrasebook was needed to translate the subsequent chant. But Iran would not be denied. Five minutes before half-time Javad Zarincheh crossed and a jackknife header by Estili flew over Keller's desperate dive.

The US coach, Steve Sampson, sent on Predrag Radosavljevic and Ernie Stewart to add width and urgency and Abedzadeh had to save desperately from a close-range touch by Hedjuk. But Iran secured a famous victory seven minutes from the end when Mahdavikia was left clear to beat Keller from 12 yards to secure Iran's first victory 20 years and one revolution after their World Cup debut.

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