Sunday, June 11, 2006

Game That Defies Borders, Religion and Ideology Unites Disparate Iranians

Shaya Tayefe Mohajer, News Press:
Iran's halting dialogue with the world has stumbled over nuclear proliferation and Holocaust denials. But World Cup soccer is speaking to Iranians everywhere - even those who despise the country's leaders adore the team. ''Politics don't matter in soccer,'' said Reza Khalili, who watched Iran play Mexico at a Manhattan restaurant with several dozen other expatriates. ''I'm an Iranian, these guys on the team are Iranian, so I support them.''

It was a sentiment echoed from Tehran to Los Angeles as Iranians gathered Sunday in kebab houses, cafes and homes to watch an opening match 3-1 loss to Mexico.

''We don't like the regime, of course, but we love our team,'' said Melinda Roodani, whose husband, Khosro, said he was pleased to see men and women watching the game together at a Los Angeles restaurant. Iran's Islamic rulers have banned women from soccer stadiums. READ MORE

The government has plenty of opposition overseas and conservative President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has further isolated Iran with his nuclear ambitions and anti-Israel rhetoric. Regardless of their politics, Iranians everywhere held their collective breath during the game, which was tied 1-1 until Mexico netted two late goals.

Iran's leaders were looking to the World Cup to bolster their global reputation. Kayhan, a conservative daily newspaper, wrote that ''the games will be a unique opportunity for Iran to show its political, social, cultural and economic stability.''

Streets were relatively empty and many shops were closed in downtown Tehran, where public revelry turned to pro-democracy riots following the country's only other World Cup appearance in 1998.

Millions watched the game on state-run television; Iran was one of the few countries in the Middle East broadcasting all games for free.

''I did not open my bookshop in the afternoon because I didn't want to be disturbed,'' Rahim Yazdi said.

A world away at an Iranian restaurant in Los Angeles, home to a large community of expatriates who oppose Iran's current government, 100 mostly young fans crowded three separate rooms to have a traditional breakfast of flat bread and soup made from cow brains.

Soccer was the other order of the day.

''No matter what the political situation is,'' said Eusan Sadri of Irvine, ''football is a unifying global event that surpasses any geographical or political boundaries.''

One Iranian-American woman watching her first World Cup game was thrilled to see her two worlds join over a plate of kabobs in New York City.

''I recently returned from Iran and I miss the feeling of being among all my family and other Iranians,'' Farnoosh Fathi said. ''It's great to have this chance to get together.''


Associated Press Writers Andrew Glazer in Los Angeles and Nasser Karimi in Tehran contributed to this report.