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After almost 20 years, the mother of all rematches is here: U.S. vs. Iran, and you can bet that this time around the Great Satan will try to exact 444 days worth of retribution from those pesky Persians.
Sure, it’s just a soccer game. And, yeah, nationalistic feuds have no good place in the globe’s most-watched sporting event, the World Cup. But why let even a hint of healthy perspective spoil something that has all the makings of a killer rivalry?
ABC sure won’t. The other first-round foes of the U.S. are much more highly regarded than Iran, which was the last nation to qualify for the 32-team World Cup and has never even won a game in the tournament. But to the official TV network of the event, a talented bunch isn’t necessarily a marketable one, so there has been nary a peep about our team’s games with Germany or Yugoslavia. ABC apparently handicapped the Americans as a three-and-out teamwhich would explain why the network has pushed the U.S.-Iran match far more heavily than the other tilts.
Of course, there might be another explanation: As a nation, we don’t have a beef with Germany or Yugoslavia.
In its promotions of the de facto marquee game of this World Cup, ABC has aimed very low. Not that the network has had much to work with, given that there aren’t any top-shelf personalities on either side. Not with John Harkes, the very face of American soccer, stuck stateside during the Cup after coming out on the losing end of a personal clash with the tyrannical coach of the national team, Steve Sampson. And not with Alexi Lalas, the very goatee of American soccer, no longer able to compensate for his dearth of foot-to-eye coordination, and therefore nailed to the bench.
As for the opposition from the Gulf, well, the company that gave us Goofy and Dumbo hasn’t even bothered trying to fake like there are any stars on the Iranian team. Play-by-play of an actual Iranian ball rotation might go, “Ali-Akbar Ostad-Assadi to Medi Pacha-Zadeh to Cyrus Din-Mohammadi”which doesn’t quite roll off the tongue like “Tinker to Evers to Chance!”
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So, ABC has gone withwhat else?a war motif for its promotional campaign: “It’s country vs. country! On the field of battle! The U.S. takes on Iran! Sunday!” screams the ABC announcer in its promos, which were airing in heavy rotation even before Germany was done stomping our boys. (In World Cups and World Wars, don’t bet against Germany in the early rounds. Especially in France.) Iran also lost its opener, though after the game Iranian players admitted being tired, since they had all had to stay awake the previous night praying as part of a mandatory team function.
The knee-jerk reaction is to slam ABC for attempting to exploit the long-festering hostilities between the two countries. The tensions in the Gulf in the late ’70s inspired some of the worst street brawling to ever hit D.C. While the Shah hung onto his crown by whatever means necessary, local anti-Shah demonstrators (usually wearing masks to prevent identification from SAVAK, the secret police back home) were often attacked by pro-Shah passers-by, or vice versa, on city streets. The feud between those factions once spilled over from Lafayette Park to the White House lawn, tear gas and all, where President Carter, a good buddy of the Shah’s, was hosting a ceremony.
The takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran on Nov. 4, 1979, brought an even grimmer dimension to the skirmish. After that came a few months’ worth of news footage of armed Iranian youngsters parading blindfolded Americans around their capital city for all the world to see. Then, in April 1980, the horrific failure of a rescue mission, which ended when a Delta Force helicopter collided with a C-130 tanker and burned up in the desert. And, then, a whole lot of nothing, until the deposing of Carter, which, remember, came on the same day the 52 American hostages came home, 444 days after they were seized. (The World Cup game might well be the most important meeting of U.S. and Iranian delegations in France since the October Surprise of 1980, when VP candidate and former CIA director George Bush allegedly orchestrated the pre-election hostage release to guarantee the defeat of Carter, who had canned him from the Agency.)
How much did we hate Ayatollah Khomeini? This much: Next to the Ayatollah, Saddam Hussein was Barney to us, so when Iran went to war with Iraq, we cheered on Saddam. For years after the hostage-taking, gung-ho bozo slogans like “It worked in Japan, it’ll work with Iran!” and “Kill ’em all, and let Allah sort ’em out!” could be uttered in almost any company without inspiring a sneer.
That’s a lot of hate. And there never really was an outlet for it. Unless you count the Ayatollah’s funeral, when we got to see attendees bat the dearly departed’s nude carcass around as if it were a beach ball in the Wrigley Field bleachers. And there was always Wrestlemania, in which Sgt. Slaughter whipped up on The Iron Sheik.
A war probably would have quenched everybody’s thirst for revenge, but a soccer match can’t hurt. So maybe ABC is providing a public service here by promo-ing the U.S.-Iran game so much, treating it like a troop deployment. Maybe some Americans will give up the ghost after watching Uncle Sam kick the Shiite out of the Iranians. On a soccer field. Where, if there are any injuries, the game will stop until the wounded player receives medical treatment and gets up and jogs offat which point fans of both teams will clap respectfully.Dave McKenna