Iran General NewsWith politics as a player, Iran loses its opener

With politics as a player, Iran loses its opener


New York Times: Symbolism rarely trumps soccer at the World Cup, but it came close Sunday, when Iran played its first game of the tournament. A politically isolated country, Iran was playing in a place that echoes darkly with history. The New York Times


NUREMBERG, Germany, June 11 — Symbolism rarely trumps soccer at the World Cup, but it came close Sunday, when Iran played its first game of the tournament. A politically isolated country, Iran was playing in a place that echoes darkly with history.

The score, a 3-1 defeat to Mexico, did little to relieve Iran’s fraught role at this World Cup.

After a scrappy first half, the Iranians seemed to lose their composure, allowing Mexico to score back-to-back goals late in the second half. For the tens of thousands of sombrero-waving Mexico fans who outnumbered Iran’s rooting section, it was an afternoon to cheer — especially for Omar Bravo, the forward who scored Mexico’s first two goals.

The other country that might have cheered, inwardly, was Germany, which has been rattled by reports that Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, plans to travel here to watch Iran play if it advances beyond its group. With its next game against a strong Portuguese team, that seems less likely.

Jewish groups here and abroad have called on Germany to bar Ahmadinejad from the country for his statements that Israel should be erased from the map and that the Holocaust did not happen.

Adding to the sensitivity was the game’s location, in the northern Bavarian city of Nuremberg, where Hitler staged vast Nazi Party rallies in the 1920’s and 1930’s. The deserted rally grounds, next to the Franken-Stadion, were clearly visible to the 42,000 spectators as they filed into the stadium.

The German police dispersed 16 people who they said were distributing anti-Jewish leaflets before the game. But neo-Nazi rallies in support of Ahmadinejad did not materialize.

Iran’s national team, which failed to qualify for the 2002 World Cup, came into this tournament with reasonable hopes. Its squad has a mix of young players and seasoned talent, some of whom play for professional teams in Germany and are well known to local spectators.

Iran came out strong at the start, with two quick shots by forward Vahid Hashemian — the second a header saved dramatically by the Mexican goalkeeper, Oswaldo Sánchez.

But Mexico scored first, when Pável Pardo took a free kick from the right of the penalty area and Guillermo Franco headed it down to Bravo, who kicked it home in the 28th minute.

Iran tied the score eight minutes later. Sánchez saved Rahman Rezaei’s header, but defender Yahya Golmohammadi chipped in the rebound.

The teams finished the first half evenly matched. But the second half was Mexico’s. Iran seemed to lose focus and its defense got sloppy. Mexico, playing a patient game, set up a shot in front of Iran’s goal for Bravo, who drilled it past goalkeeper Ebrahim Mirzapour in the 76th minute.

Three minutes later, with Iran’s defenders seemingly not paying attention, a substitute midfielder, Zinha, put himself in front of the goal and headed in Mexico’s third goal. Zinha, whose given name is Antonio Naelson Matías, was born in Brazil and is a naturalized Mexican citizen.

Iran’s coach, Branko Ivankovic, paced the sidelines with a distraught expression as the clock ticked away.

The victory was especially sweet for Sánchez, Mexico’s veteran goalkeeper. His father died last week, and he returned Saturday from the funeral in Guadalajara. The Mexican team was not sure whether Sánchez, 32, would be in mental shape for the game. Judging from his several leaping saves, he was more than ready for the challenge.

Iran’s preparations for the World Cup have been shadowed by politics every step of the way. Critics of the Tehran government urged soccer’s world governing body, FIFA, to bar the team — citing not only its president’s anti-Jewish remarks but Iran’s standoff with the West over its nuclear program. FIFA declined to do that, saying that sports should be kept separate from politics.

On Sunday afternoon, a few hundred members of a local Jewish group protested against Ahmadinejad in a square in Nuremberg’s old city. They carried Israeli flags and placards that read: “Never Again. No Acceptance of Mass Murder. No Acceptance of Threats of Mass Murder.”

“We don’t want a second Hitler; we know what his purposes here are,” the group’s leader, Arno Hamburger, said. He added that the players bore no blame and should be allowed to compete.

The protesters expressed anger that Germany had allowed Iran’s vice president, Mohammad Aliabadi, to travel here for the game. Though Aliabadi has not been quoted saying inflammatory things about Israel, people here said he was a representative of the president.

“We don’t want an Iran that is associated with terrorism,” said Tahara Jafapour, an Iranian exile who lives in Stuttgart and attended the protest carrying a Persian flag.

Among Iranian fans outside the stadium, opinion about the government was split, but support for the players was uniform.

“I don’t think he should come,” Shahram Bakhtiari, 46, a salesman who has lived in Germany for 27 years, said, referring to Ahmadinejad. “It’s a provocation. The government is trying to use the team to its advantage.”

Ali Shahrani, 38, an information technology specialist from Tehran, said that Ahmadinejad should be allowed to come to Germany like any other leader. He blamed the news media for hounding the team. “People are trying to mix sports and politics,” he said. “Let’s just leave one day without politics.”

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