News & Views
This is not your ordinary match
By STEFAN FATSIS
The Wall Street Journal
Friday, June 19, 1998
SAINT-JEAN D'ARDIERES, France -- It has been remarked that American soccer player Alexi Lalas, with his striking Vandyke beard, could pass for a modern-day Lenin, minus the hoop earrings. But where Lenin would have seen sweet political allegory in Sunday's World Cup showdown between the U.S. and Iran, Comrade Lalas sees, well, a soccer game.
"It means absolutely nothing," Mr. Lalas says during a training break here at the 14th-century Beaujolais chateau where the team is staying. When it comes to the U.S., he notes, "if we want to pick a fight, we can pick a fight with just about any country in the tournament."
Maybe so, but Iran isn't just any country, the World Cup isn't any tournament and this isn't any sport. Soccer has been called war without the guns, and if that's stretching the metaphor, consider that more countries (204) belong to soccer's governing body, FIFA, than to the United Nations (185). The political possibilities in the world's most passionate game are profound.
"That is the power of the sport of soccer," says Pele, the Brazilian legend, who says he refused to play in the 1974 Cup to protest the country's military government.
Sports and politics have been linked since the Ancient Greeks stopped wars to stage the Olympics. But soccer has the deepest political roots. Before this Cup started, South African President Nelson Mandela told the team's captain: "I am counting on you to bring glory to your country and your people."
For the first World Cup, in 1930, King Carol of Romania personally chose his team's players. Four years later, host Italy's Azzurri -- named for their blue uniforms -- were redubbed "Mussolini's azzurri." In 1938, Hitler's German team took the best players from occupied Austria.
In 1978, Argentina's military dictatorship -- which had spent 10% of the country's budget to host the event -- claimed the team's victory as its own. During Argentina's 1982 war with Britain over the Falkland Islands, leaflets showed the World Cup emblem and a British lion surrendering to a soccer-playing Argentine.
The tournament has even been blamed for war. In 1969, during qualifying matches, violence between fans of Honduras and El Salvador brought out long-simmering tensions, resulting in the four-day-long "Soccer War."
There's no shortage of political combustibility here. On Thursday, Yugoslavia plays the U.S. The U.S. government backed U.N. sanctions against Yugoslavia because of the wars in Bosnia and Croatia, and Yugoslavian media have depicted the game as a chance for the country's president, Slobodan Milosevic, to get back at Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who is vilified there.
"I and my teammates have an extra motive to do well and show how unfair the sanctions were," Yugoslavia's world-class scorer, Predrag Mijatovic, said last week.
German politicians, meanwhile, asked FIFA to send home the Yugoslavian team (barred in 1994) because of escalating ethnic violence in Kosovo province. FIFA earlier this week rejected the request, saying the U.N. had taken no action against Yugoslavia. Germany plays Yugoslavia Sunday.
Iran's motivation is less clear-cut. The U.S. and Iran have no diplomatic relations, and the "Death to America" chant still is heard in the Iranian parliament. But despite a pretournament visit to the mausoleum of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who led the 1979 Islamic revolution that resulted in the hostage-taking at the U.S. embassy in Tehran, the team insists the U.S. game isn't a grudge match. "We are here to play football and not for any political reasons," says Iranian coach Jalal Talebi, whose family lives in California.
For many ordinary Iranians, argues H.E. Chehabi, an international-relations professor at Boston University, playing the U.S. symbolizes Iran's slow return to international life. Iranians cheered U.S. wrestlers at a Tehran tournament in February. "The people are very friendly to Americans these days," Prof. Chehabi says. "I think they'll be watching [the U.S. match] very carefully but without much hostility -- at least no more hostility than any other soccer game."
But the match took on extra weight this week. First, the Iranians complained about a French TV network showing an American film critical of Iran's leaders. Iranian officials claimed they discussed dropping out of the tournament. U.S. soccer says the talk is bluster; Iran gets $2 million for completing the first round.
More serious are threats that Iranian exiles will disrupt Sunday's match. That has heightened the intrigue, and caution. The State Department already planned to post consular officials in the cities where the Iran and Yugoslavia matches will be held. A member of the State Department's diplomatic security service has been traveling with the U.S. team. French police are treating the U.S.-Iran match "very seriously," a member of the U.S. soccer delegation says.