USA vs. Iran (vs. Iran)

Ethan Zindler reports from the World Cup: At the Iran-U.S. match, the real action is in the stands.

Published June 24, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

LYON, France June 21: There's an old joke about that sport that's played with a puck: I went to a fight the other night and a hockey game broke out. Well, tonight I'm going to a political rally and maybe, just maybe, a soccer game will break out.

Lyon's main square is Place Belle Cours, an enormous rectangular plaza of orange gravel. Under a blazing sun and a cloudless sky, a group of young men are playing -- what else? -- pickup soccer. Most appear to be Iranian and they've tied team jerseys and flags around their heads to keep cool. But there are some Americans in the game, too. A television cameraman is present to record it all.

Just off Place Belle Cours, an impromptu rally of Iranian supporters is under way even though the game doesn't kick off for eight hours. "I-ran! I-ran!" is the chant interspersed with drumbeats and whistles. Supporters eating at the canopied McDonald's next door join in.

Then a considerably smaller crew of Americans starts its own, "U-S-A! U-S-A!" The two groups try to outshout each other at first, then join together to cheer "I-ran! USA! I-ran! USA!" It's a genuine moment. But the volume of shouting increases about three notches when nearby TV crews take notice.

An Iranian woman approaches. "You are reporter?" she asks. Her name is Narges (she's unwilling to provide a last name). Her family moved to Stockholm to escape the ayatollah in '78. Regarding today's match, she says: "It's not just a match. It's about freedom, our time and our country. For U.S., we don't have anything against U.S. It is important that world see us. It's worse than you think. We love our team and we love our players but we want freedom for our people. We are here for democracy and more than 100,000 executed and 150,000 in prison. It is the point, not the game."

What about Khatami, Iran's new, more moderate president, who in recent months has made peace overtures to the United States? Narges tells me, "He is bad man." She was a student when he was the cultural minister and he was "bad for students," she says.

It seems that most of the Iranian supporters in Lyon today have traveled from Western European countries, not Iran. That's true, says Narges, because most Iranians living there cannot afford to travel, but there are members of Iran's Revolutionary Guard here as well. She forcefully takes me by the elbow, pulls me to the corner and points to a white minivan covered with Iran posters parked across the street. All its doors are open and men are passing out green, white and red visors and Iran T-shirts. "There," she says. "That is Iranian embassy van."

One of the white van men is Mohammed Said, who does, in fact, live in Iran. He quickly notices that I don't have an official press credential but seems willing to talk anyway. What does he think of all the politics involved in this match? "I don't think you can send a message with this match. It is a little different but it won't be the change of position between Iran and U.S." Should that relationship change? "I think it should change but not because of this." And what about the thousands of Iranians who have traveled from Western European countries to state their opposition to the current government? He claims not to have seen them.

But perhaps not everyone has politics on his mind. Amir Ghahani is hanging out near the white van as well. He lives in San Diego and tells me: "I lived in Iran when the shah was in power. I support the team and the culture, not the government. I'm not going to go into the stadium cheering, 'I support the Islamic Republic of Iran.' I just support Iran."

A band of 15 chanting Iran supporters marches into the dusty center of Place Belle Cours. There they find Nathan Max of Washington, D.C., a young man wearing a U.S. flag around his head and a national team T-shirt. A busty young Iranian woman in a tight gray tank top strikes up a flirtatious conversation with him. The crowd of supporters encircles them. She asks if he's ever kissed an Iranian girl and the crowd erupts. By now, several photojournalists have arrived.

Nathan blushes a little, then enthusiastically tries to take her up on what sounded like an offer. But she's too embarrassed and demurs. After two or three failed attempts, a middle-aged man wearing an Iranian flag steps forward and plants a big wet one on Nathan's cheek. The two share a bear hug. Click, flash, wind, the cameras snap away.

A great photo op has been had but Nathan still wants one on the lips from the voluptuous young lady. "Please," he begs, "in the name of peace!"

"Piece of what?" someone yells.

"Piece of ass!" he replies.

The crowd bursts into laughter.

In one corner of the square an Iran fan has knotted his flag to that of an American supporter. Five photojournalists shoot away. One holds out two fingers with his left hand as his right handles a Nikon. The subjects take the hint; they make peace signs and smile.

All through the afternoon Iran fans toot horns, bang drums, chant and cheer their way up and down Rue de la Republique, Lyon's main drag. It's a beautiful, car-free promenade, and the noise echoes off the building walls. In a wide square about a kilometer up the road from Place Belle Cours, fans frolic in a giant open fountain. In the middle, a pile of McDonald's containers, Kronenborg beer cans and other flotsam and jetsam has sunk to the bottom.

On one of the side streets, two dozen or so Americans are drinking beers out of pint-sized plastic cups outside Bar & Bihres. In Europe, singing is an integral part of the football fan's experience. But we Americans, though we know how to cheer and chant, don't really understand the concept of nationalistic songs. The folks on the street try a round of "Oli," the world's simplest and most popular soccer song, but can't quite get it in key. Then a Scottish fellow who's been drinking with the group leads a round of "We're the Tartan Army." After that they belt out "Do-Ray-Me" from "The Sound of Music" and then "Frhre-Jacques." No doubt about it: If the U.S. is to become a soccer superpower, we need some better fight songs.

As thousands walk toward the stadium entrance, the feeling is electric, as if
we all know something extraordinary is going to happen. After an extensive
security check during which all bodies are frisked and all bags are carefully
searched, we make our way to our seats.

Mine is in Escalier D, directly behind the Iran goal. Already, the noise
level is simply astonishing. There are 20 minutes to kickoff and I
cannot hear what a fan directly next to me says, even when he yells. Keep in
mind that this is an open stadium. There is no roof for the
noise to bounce off as in, say, Madison Square Garden or the Kingdome.
Drums bang away, whistles are blaring. Some guy's got a pair of 20-inch
cymbals that he continually bashes together. Fans are standing on their
seats, yelling at the top of their lungs. It's complete bedlam.

A distant cry of "USA, USA," is barely audible. The vast majority of the fans
are here to support Iran in one way or another, but the factions within that
group are hard to disentangle. The largest seems to consist of supporters of
the Mujahadeen, an army of rebels that opposes the current Iranian government.
I say "seems" because it is hard to distinguish these folks from those who
simply hate the government but don't necessarily support the Mujahadeen.

Those Mujahadeen supporters dominate my section of the stands and the sections
to the right as well. Many are wearing T-shirts with pictures of leaders
Maryam and Mashood Rajavi surrounded by fluorescent green or orange, designed
for maximum televisibility. Old women with cloaks over their heads, children,
men, everyone wears these shirts and they are screaming, really screaming, "I-ran! Ra-ja-vi! I-ran! Ra-ja-vi!" This is a massive political protest. It
just happens to be taking place at a soccer game.

As the band plays Iran's national anthem, my section sings a different Persian
nationalist song, again with all their strength. The result is a cacophony of
disjointed tunes.

Moments before kickoff a large pink balloon floats ever so gently off the
balcony above toward the playing field. From it hangs a banner with a picture
of Maryam Rajavi. The Iranian players have just completed their warm-ups and
are heading into a pregame huddle as the balloon drifts by, no more than 10
yards away. Those around me go absolutely berserk. The referee walks over,
grabs this ingenious political statement and removes it from the field.

Finally, at long last, the game gets under way. The Americans dominate early
but it is of no matter to the masses. The extraordinary din continues at the
same volume, regardless of the action on the field. Unlike at any normal
sporting event, the crowd noise never lulls, not for one instant. Near me, a
man holds a red, white and green flag much like the official flag of Iran --
except there is a lion on the white middle stripe. "This is Iran before
ayatollah. They took this flag and put that crap on it," he says, pointing to
the Islamic symbol on the official flag. He says he paid 800 pounds for his
ticket to some scalper in London. He says there's an army of 30,000
Mujahadeen troops massed on the border of Iran waiting to invade. He says
he's here to show solidarity with them.

What is striking about the general mayhem is that it seems to lack any
specific anti-American sentiment. No "Down with the Great Satan" signs
anywhere. No anti-USA chants. Iranian fans are even relatively polite during
the playing of the "Star-Spangled Banner." As many tell me, they are here
first and foremost to support their team, the representatives of their

About 35 minutes into the first half, the Iranians score the first goal of the
game. The stadium explodes. All around me people hug, kiss, dance, weep. It
is a miracle, a moment of indescribable national pride. Now if they can just
hold that lead.

During halftime, supporters turn their attention from the action on the field
to each other. From the balcony above us hangs a banner supporting the
current regime. Those on my terrace turn their backs to the field and chant
up at them, "Down with Khatami! Down with Khatami!" for a full 15 minutes
until the game restarts.

FIFA, the international soccer body that runs the World Cup, forbids overt
political statements at Cup matches (a truly absurd rule). Throughout the
first half supporters in Escalier D raised aloft large fluorescent banners
that read, "Down with Khatami" only to have security personnel confiscate them. In the second half, they wise up. When stadium guards come
to one end of the section, a banner is balled up and tossed from fan to fan
safely out of reach, then unfurled again. Upping the ante, the stadium calls
in what appears to be a SWAT team of French national police. Each wears all
black, including intimidating combat boots, and carries a crowd control billy
club. These young toughs wrestle the banners out of the hands of old Muslim
women, even children. A good deal of scuffling is involved as fans try to
stop them. During one excellent scoring chance for Iran, supporters are
distracted by a commotion in the section adjacent to us. A fan is landing a
solid right hand to someone's head as the SWAT team descends. He is quickly
pinned down and removed by security.

Buried deep within the mayhem of Escalier D are Eric Mason of New York and
Andrea North of Dallas, the lone red, white and blue supporters in a sea of
red, white and green. They seem rather shaken but not scared enough to leave
their seats. "It's pretty cool. It's history-making. I'm standing in a
bunch of Iranians," Andrea says.

With about 15 minutes to go, the Iranians score again to go up 2-0. There is
now no doubt Iran will win and the stadium reaches a new, previously
unimagined, fever pitch. In the midst of it all I snap two pictures of two
Muslim women dressed in conservative religious wear as they embrace in joy.
When traveling in Middle Eastern countries, it is extremely inconsiderate to
photograph a woman wearing a chador without securing permission. But women who were
similarly dressed and were taking part in the Rajavi protest had encouraged me to shoot
away. It suddenly becomes apparent that these two are not a part of that
faction of supporters.

One of them is pushing me, screaming, "Pourquoi? Pourquoi!
A security guard has seen what happens and he too starts yelling
at me in French, demanding to see some ID, shoving me. I have no official
press credential and my ticket was bought scalped. To avoid getting kicked
out of the game (or perhaps something worse), I open the camera, rip out the
film and hand it to the woman. That seems to calm things enough for me
to apologize and make a quick escape. A few minutes later I realize that during
the commotion my pen got jabbed fairly deeply into my hand. I'm sitting amid
thousands of insane Iranian soccer fans licking blood off my fingers.

With five minutes left, 100 SWAT team members walk onto the playing pitch
behind the goal line and stand facing our section as if to say, "Don't even
think about storming the field." The game ends and the Iranian players come
running over to Escalier D, jumping for joy. The mutual admiration is clear
and doesn't last long. After only two minutes, the coach leads the players
away from the stands back to the dressing room, perhaps concerned about their
exposure to seditious elements.

The fans roll out of the stadium, dancing for joy. But the hostility between
factions is still apparent. One man kisses his official team jersey and
swears at the Mujahadeen supporters for ruining the match with their political
protest. His friends drag him away. It makes you wonder what might have
happened had the team suffered a humiliating loss.

Outside the stadium, I catch up with Patrice and Mike McGinnis, two very
disappointed-looking American fans. What did they think of the chaos in the
stands? "I was afraid," Patrice confesses. "I didn't want to be a victim.
We're here on vacation." They had asked security guards to move them to different

No doubt about it, the atmosphere within the stadium tonight was electric and
definitely on edge. But although there was plenty of hostility among
Iranians themselves and between Iran supporters and the police, there seemed
to be little aimed at the USA. Perhaps that's because our team played so
badly -- who knows?

Whatever the case, many of these folks seem openly to embrace American
culture. Amid the chaos of the postgame street party, one Iran fan
approaches me. After making eating gestures, he asks in very broken English,
"Where is McDonald?" I have no idea.

By Ethan Zindler

Ethan Zindler is a New York writer/photographer who has covered soccer for a variety of publications. Last summer, he spent five weeks in France at the men's World Cup writing dispatches for Salon's Wanderlust section.

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