Electronic Telegraph - France World Cup Guide 1998
    Monday 22 June 1998

Thought police bring game into disrepute
By Paul Hayward

English primed for big guns
Iran prove big noise in historic win

IF there was a World Cup for propaganda coups it would have been won last night by the Iranian National Council of Resistance, who defied a FIFA edict banning political sloganeering at the USA-Iran match here and turned one end of the Stade Gerland into a political rally. Dissidents 1, Ayatollahs 0.

The other losers were the tournament organisers and stadium security staff who sent in heavies to tear down banners showing pictures of the Rajavi family, the focus for opposition groups in exile. So much for freedom of speech in the west. FIFA created the problem by trying to suppress the political aspects of a hugely political event, and then compounded the error by stifling a peaceful protest in a way that contravened the most fundamental French traditions. The elderly woman who was roughly deprived of her flag by a security guard will have a few interesting things to say about democracy in Europe.

Later, more staff waded in after a banner appeared declaring "Down with Khatemi [the Iranian president]". The drawing of truncheons was one of the most disgraceful scenes we are likely to see at this World Cup - official hooliganism which placed FIFA's need to present a sanitised image of football to the world ahead of freedom of expression. It was the smallest of mercies that the French declined the opportunity to wrench off the hundreds of T-shirts showing the faces of Massoud and Maryam Rajavi.

FIFA and the local authorities should be ashamed. While the players linked arms for a combined team photo on the pitch, security officers were behaving like the secret police in an old Soviet state. What the opposition groups stand for and what they want is irrelevant. Their attempt to turn a football match into a rally should have been regarded as an unavoidable bi-product of a complex political situation in which FIFA have made their position abundantly clear. When the banners appeared again five minutes into the game, stadium staff were followed into action by the CRS riot police.

Any thought that the 3,000 Iranian tickets would go to members of the country's Revolutionary Guard who would cheer their team obediently evaporated an hour before the game. A match that was subtitled as a clash between two hostile superpowers turned out to be a contest between the Iranian government and opposition groups. American supporters watched bemused from the opposite end of the ground as mere slogans were treated by the police as if they were lethal weapons.

This after the people of Yssingeaux, where the Iranians are based, had performed diplomatic somersaults to make the team feel welcome. In a statement the mayor, Jacques Barrot, had declared: "We will hear traditional Iranian music, admire its craftsmanship and experience intense moments of cultural exchange. Long live Iran! Long live France!" But which Iran were FIFA welcoming? Presumably the one that would make politicking in the middle-east easiest.

In Lyons' blissful old town yesterday afternoon an astonishing ethnic stew bubbled away in the heat: Scots in kilts, non-belligerent England fans, Iranian children in T-shirts, a Mariachi band in ponchos, Ivy League Americans with "It's called soccer, dude" on their T-shirts and even a couple of Brighton supporters in blue and white stripes.

In this museum of footballing mankind the prime exhibit was supposed to be a sporting contest which sounded at best like a major diplomatic incident - the United States vs Iran. A gathering that once would have been impossible without a plane load of diplomats standing in the middle was to be either a glorious advertisement for sport or a brief and irrelevant ceasefire in an ideological war, depending on how cynical you are. Either way Salman Rushdie is unlikely to have his fatwah lifted and the Americans will probably continue to regard the death sentence as a wonderful thing in Texas and an abomination in Tehran.

To hear legions of Iranian fans singing, "ole, ole, ole, ole, ear-ran" was indeed a bewildering thing, especially for Americans who have been led to believe that the ayatollahs were like the Soviets but with more elaborate headgear. The rapprochement may have much to do with the fact that Iraq has replaced Iran as public enemy No 1.

The game itself will be remembered as a sporting footnote, and a PR calamity for football. The further it went the more zealous security staff became. Last night the authorities in Lyons, trying to enforce an unjust FIFA edict, behaved in a way that was reminiscent of the regime the protesters spent so much energy condemning.

Even assuming that these dissident groups were wrong to hijack a football match, which they were, the almost Orwellian suppression of their protest was a shaming spectacle which ultimately failed. It was preposterous to think that decades of resentment and a highly-organised demonstration could be crushed by men with official armbands and boilersuits. There are now illegal thoughts at this World Cup.

Return to top

Next report: Coach calls tune in Romanian rhapsody

Front Page | Teams | Fixtures | Venues | Star Player Vote | World Cup History
Road to France | Grudge Matches | Football Fun | email ET sports team