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An American Fanís Journal

June 21, 1998: Free tickets provide Cupís best treat.

June 19, 1998: French cabbies and waiters know the truth.

June 16, 1998: The Great Paris Umbrella Riot.

June 14, 1998: A crowning moment for Nigeria.

June 13, 1998: Let the World Cup debate begin.

June 10, 1998: World Cup off to good start.

An American Fan's Journal: Politics reigned in stands of U.S.-Iran match.

By Robert Wagman
SoccerTimes Correspondent

LYON, France (Monday, June 22, 1998) -- I made a new friend last night at the United States-Iran match. His English is surprisingly good, he is obviously well educated and at least upper middle- class.

He invited me to break bread with him should I ever venture to his hometown. While it is many miles from Lyon, and he had traveled far for the match, I may just take him up on his offer. You see he comes from the holy city of Evanston, Ill. and we have something in common -- his son attends the high school I graduated from.

I met many Iranians the last few days. They come from London, Los Angeles, Toronto, in one case a man from Sydney Australia here with his brother from Omaha, and from all parts of France. What I have not met is an Iranian who has been in Teheran, except to visit, since the Shah fled how many years ago. The match was a reunion party for Iranians living in all parts of the world.

The atmosphere at Stade de Gerland was as electric as any I have ever witnessed in sport. In fact, despite the presence of some 7,000 French police and regular army troops, it was at times downright threatening. I would estimate that U.S. fans were outnumbered 20-1 in the stands. Most of the French were supporting Iran.

But what went on in the stands had very little to do with the soccer match. What was going on was essentially a political demonstration by various expatriate Iranian factions supporting various of the liberal, non-religious parties back home. With the game being televised back to Iran in essentially an uncensored mode, it was a once in a lifetime opportunity to try to influence local politics from outside the border.

What was going on in the teeming stands was a battle between various factions. Fights broke out constantly during the first half hour of the match. What was going on the field was of little consequence to many in the stands, as they tore one another's banners down, tried to outshout one another with decidedly political chants, and when the going got tough simply fought it out.

Many of the combatants would make Philadelphia Flyer fans look like pacifists. But the adopted an interesting way to brake up any such altercations. First the ushers would try, with some help from uniformed police. If that failed, they called in the guys in the blue sweatsuits. They looked rather like a soccer team, short hair and to a man obviously very fit. But as an usher confided to me "they are from our special brigade." In other words French paratroopers, the best of the best of the French military.

They had a most effective way of breaking up any fight. A dozen or so would come running. They would wade into the middle, and in a most direct, non-gentle way, would begin throwing bodies around. When they ran out of bodies, the fight was declared over. Then a half dozen or so participants were hauled off to jail. (Judges were standing by at the stadium to send transgressors directly to jail.) After about eight incidents involving the blue sweatsuits, the fighting came to a quick end for the rest of the night.

After the match, predictably, the Iranians went nuts. Their celebrations went far into the night. But I did not see a single U.S. fan hassled. The French authorities, however, seem to be losing their sense of humor involving soccer fans and celebrations. This is especially true after a French policeman is in critical condition after a clash with German hooligans.

As for the game itself, you had to be proud of the U.S. team the way they pressed forward from the opening kickoff, despite all that was going on around them. This is one of those situations where you had to be there to fully understand. The result was not what we wanted, or expected, but no one could fault the effort. We simply have to develop better players to compete at this level.

So now it's off to Nantes to see the final match. I guess the feeling is we were there when it all started two years ago, and we need to see it through.

Marylandís Bob Wagman wrote a nationally syndicated political column for Scripps-Howard for many years. At the same time he has covered soccer in North America for British and South African newspapers since the days of the North American Soccer League. His "Football In America" column now appears regularly in British newspapers. He can be e-mailed at MobileWag@aol.com.