Free crescents and Iranian dissidents: the joys of covering France 98

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Free crescents and Iranian dissidents: the joys of covering France 98


United States vs Iran, World Cup, Lyon, June 21, 1998

Every now and then when I’m looking for something in the attic, I come across a gray folder with a red and white sticker advertising the Argentinian newspaper El Grafico. glued to the cover. Every now and then I open it and take a look inside. Last weekend, for the first time in many years, I took him down the ladder. He’s sitting on my desk as I type this: dusty, smelling musty of old stained paper – though I might imagine that – along with the smell of garlic and black tobacco.

Inside are the relics of my trip to the 1998 World Cup – my laminated press card, a series of team sheets and tickets, a typed itinerary with hotel phone numbers, articles which I wrote for The Guardian, which my mother proudly cut up and preserved. , and the little booklet I made for When Saturday Comes.

There’s also my notebook, a black and red A5 hardback with a J League Urawa Red Diamonds sticker on the cover. Every time I see it, I smile at the memory of the people who gave it to me – three laughing Japanese women, dressed as geishas, ​​I had helped take a taxi to the Toulouse municipal stadium on day their nation played its very first. match in a World Cup final.

France 98 was the first time I went to football as a journalist rather than a fan. I spent most of the first week sitting in media centers and on the press platform convinced that at some point the police would arrest me like an impostor. I had a heavy schedule of games – 17 in 19 days. I have crisscrossed the country by train using my Eurorail pass so often that I had to get an extra booklet to write down the trips.

I have stayed in cheap hotels that I found in the Le Routard guide. Some of them were lovely, others looked so much like nursing homes that you half expected to find a mug with fake teeth next to the bed. Not that it’s a chore. After all, I was in France watching football and getting paid for it.

By the time I watched my 10th game, Spain against Paraguay in Saint-Etienne, the games had started to blur into one. I now remember Roberto Baggio’s equalizing penalty in the rain at Stade Lescure, a crazy arbitration in Toulouse (South Africa against Denmark) by a Colombian named John Rendón; Hristo Stoichkov tramples as Alexei Sayle imitates Mussolini. Football was often dull, but fabulous. In fact, it was one of the happiest times of my life.

Match number 11 was a Group F match at the elegant Stade de Gerland in Lyon. Group F was the draw that Fifa didn’t want and the one that most supporters felt was inevitable. At the ceremony in Paris, Germany and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia had already been drawn, and they were later joined by the Pot C team in Iran. Pot D was drawn next. An excited buzz went up when the name was read: USA.

Hamid Estili’s header beats American goalkeeper Kasey Keller to give Iran the lead in Lyon. Photographie: Patrick Kovarik / EPA

Relations between the United States and Iran had been hostile since the 1979 revolution. In 1993, Bill Clinton imposed an embargo on all American trade with Iran. Sport had inevitably become involved in the argument. When Iranian wrestler Rasoul Khadem won an Olympic medal in Atlanta in 1996, Iranian President Akbar Rafsanjani said the wrestler hoisted the Iranian flag “in the house of Satan”.

After the draw, the US State Department suggested that the game could help thaw relations between the two countries. Iranian officials downplayed the match as some kind of war without the bullets too. The president of the American Football Federation, Alan Rothenberg, meanwhile, tried to lighten matters with a farce. “All we need now is an Iraqi referee,” he said. In fact, when an official was nominated for the game in Lyon, they got Switzerland’s Urs Meier, who six years later is expected to go into hiding after being hunted down by angry English fans.

At first glance, Americans seemed to have the best side, or at least the best known. In comparison, Iranian players were largely unknown. The exception was the powerful striker Ali Daei, who had had such a successful season at Arminia Bielefeld that Bayern Munich signed him.

Iran went to France via a play-off with Australia. The Australians, led by England’s favorite media geezer Terry Venables, drew the first leg in Tehran and led 2-0 in the second in front of 85,000 fans at Melbourne Cricket Ground. But Iran had recovered and in the 79th minute Khodadad Azizi – who was playing for Cologne – had equalized. Iran sneaked away on away goals, Australian TV commentators so overwhelmed by the turn of events that one burst into tears.

Despite the success in the qualifiers, the Iranian Federation lost patience with their Brazilian manager Valdeir Vieira and sacked him shortly after. Came Jalal Talebi, an Iranian who lived – ironically – with his family in the United States when he was appointed. Talebi and his wife ran a vegan restaurant in Silicon Valley and he was a part-time coach at a local university.

On the day of this big loaded game, things started slowly. Kick-off didn’t happen until nine in the evening, but I had a copy to drop off and, being on a budget, wanted to take full advantage of the free coffee and croissants.

In front of me in the queue, a senior BBC commentator complained about the slow service, while in my back Ian St John was smiling happily and winking at me. At 11:30 a.m., a directive from Fifa arrived, saying seats in the press booth were oversubscribed and a waiting list was being worked out.

Usually the first choice of tickets went to journalists from competing countries, but by 1998 the mainstream American media were as interested in football as they were in Liechtenstein politics, while Iranian journalists were nearly outnumbered by those from the US. Falklands. Islands (a guy from Port Stanley who supported Preston North End). When the confirmed list arrived, my name was on it.

Photographie: Pitch Publishing

The large temporary hangar that housed the Lyon press center filled up quickly and early. A rumor was circulating that 7,000 tickets for the match had been bought on the black market by members of the Iraqi-sponsored Iranian dissident group, the People’s Mujahedin of Iran (MEK).

Most football writers had no idea who MEK was, but those who knew how to use the Ask Jeeves web search engine on the powerful computers in the media center soon found out that MEK was run by a woman named Maryam Rajavi. , had carried out violent attacks on Iranian embassies. worldwide and have been classified as a terrorist organization by just about everyone in the western world.

I went up to the press booth an hour before kick-off. Nails Republican Security Companies Riot police (CRS) gathered around the halls, red packets of tear gas on their backs and their shields stacked up. A police sniper was perched behind me, the rifle on a tripod, his cheeks scarred in anti-glare makeup stripes, his rifle scope pointed at the opposite mount.

The Away Leg: XI Football Stories From On the Road (Pitch Publishing), edited by Steve Menary and James Montague. Recommended retail price £ 12.99. All proceeds go to Community Integrated Care.

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