Iran's moment Tough game: U.S. soccer loss briefly unified Iranians of all political persuasions.

June 23, 1998

DURING THE reign of the shah, Iran was a major player in the one truly global sport -- soccer. Iran's team became an international soccer power.

Then the Iranian revolution two decades ago cleansed the team of impure thoughts, leaving an Islamicized but otherwise unremarkable squad in the nether reaches of world play.

But improvements this decade, as in United States' soccer prowess, brought the two sides face-to-face in Lyon, France, two days ago. Neither team had expected to do much in this year's World Cup event. Players on both sides were happy to have made it so far.

It proved a riveting game between two squads that were skilled and fit.

The United States dominated play, always on the attack but unable to capitalize on its numerous scoring opportunities. The bottom line: a 2-1 triumph for Iran.

It was a great victory for Iran, cheered politically in Tehran and wherever the United States is reviled as the Great Satan. In this country, there was disappointment to be sure, but soccer fans took it in stride.

The true significance of this contest was the momentary unity between Iranians of the revolution and Iranians of the diaspora in this country and in France. Young women expatriates in the briefest of Paris fashions, scornful of the chador, exulted equally with grim clerics in Qom. The thrill was genuine and shared.

Soccer has been called the true religion of Iran, as of some nominally Christian countries. That, no doubt, is an overstatement.

This moment of soccer glory will pass, leaving a memory of national pride restored, a glimpse of what might have been, and might yet still be.

Pub Date: 6/23/98

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