WORLD CUP WATCH: Iran Controversy

By Mike Woitalla, Executive Editor
Soccer America

The USA drawing Iran as a first-round opponent at the 1998 World Cup provided much fodder for pre-tournament hype for those finals. ''World Cup War,'' ''Group Hug? Doubtful'' and ''Devil of a Draw'' were headlines in the New York Daily News, New York Times and Sports Illustrated, respectively.

The U.S. State Department even had to weigh in on whether the game would have to be called off because of President Bill Clinton's 1995 executive order banning all commercial and financial transactions with Iran.

''We can put that to sleep,'' said the State Department months before the tournament, pointing out that the game didn't constitute ''putting money in Iran's pocket.''

U.S. Soccer president Alan Rothenberg joked, after the draw eight years ago, ''all we need is an Iraqi referee.''

The referee turned out to be Swiss Urs Meier. U.S. and Iranian players exchanged gifts before the game and posed for the pre-game team photo together, arm in arm. Iran won, 2-1.

Now as World Cup 2006 approaches, more heated controversy surrounds Iran, drawn into Group D with Mexico, Angola and Portugal.

Members of the German parliament called for banning Iran from the World Cup because of remarks from its president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in which he suggested the Holocaust was a myth and because of his anti-Israel comments. Iran's nuclear ambitions have also fueled calls for a ban from in and outside of Germany.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and FIFA, however, have ruled out banning Iran.

FIFA spokesman John Schumacher told BBC radio: ''FIFA is a sporting organization and not a political one. Each side are representatives of their respective Football Associations and cannot be held responsible for views expressed by their own governments.''

In 1992, UEFA threw Yugoslavia out of the European Championship -- replaced by eventual winner Denmark -- but in that case the United Nations Security Council sanctions, because of the Bosnian war, obligated national governments to prohibit Yugoslav teams from competing in international events. FIFA also banned Yugoslavia and Serbia and Montenegro from qualifying play for the 1994 World Cup.

If U.N. Security Council were to implement sanctions against Iran for its pursuit of a nuclear program and extend them to international sports, as it did in the Yugoslav situation, FIFA's stand would be tested.

In a Feb. 2 report, the New York Times wrote: ''Bush administration officials have said repeatedly that they want a go-slow approach, avoiding sanctions that might enrage the Iranian people, like banning Iran from playing in the World Cup soccer championships, for example.''

SATIRE OR INSULT. In an incident that inflamed tensions between Iran and Germany, German newspaper Der Tagesspiegel published on Feb. 10 a cartoon depicting four Iranian national team players as suicide bombers, dynamite strapped to their chests. The caption -- ''Why the German army should definitely be used during the World Cup'' -- referred to a debate in Germany about using armed forces to help with security.

The cartoonist, Klaus Stuttmann, said he was against German soldiers being deployed and intended the cartoon to show that he found the suggestion absurd.

''The target was not the Iranians,'' Stuttmann said. ''The Iranians are sportsmen, like all the other teams. That's why we don't need the Army to be involved.''

Suttmann received death threats and firebombs were thrown at the German embassy in Tehran.

Especially considering the deadly worldwide riots in response to Muhammad cartoons that preceded his cartoon, how could Stuttmann not foresee that his sketching would produce outrage?

IRANIAN MOVIE SCORES IN BERLIN. In the Iranian film ''Offside,'' teenage girls hope to evade the ban on women at Iranian soccer stadiums by dressing up as boys to sneak into Tehran's Azadi Stadium to watch Iran beat Bahrain to qualify for the 2006 World Cup.

The comedy, which includes real footage of the Iran-Bahrain (1-0) game, won the runner-up award for best feature film at the Berlin Film Festival in February.

''Soccer is a sport that has such a great appeal that it's able to bring people together from different countries and backgrounds,'' said director Jafar Panahi, who added he was not sure whether the film will ever be screened in Iran.

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