At the camp of the Great Satan, players are just happy to be getting a little attention. And if political intrigue means higher ratings, they'll be even happier.
Sunday's World Cup game between the United States and Iran has focused attention on the American team, usually poor cousins on the sports pages next to their counterparts in the NFL, baseball, the NBA and the NHL."We realize both governments are looking at this game and would like to get one over on each other," U.S. goalkeeper Kasey Keller said Friday. "If it brings a couple more million people in front of their televisions, that's OK."
While Islamic clerics in Iran love to denounce the United States as the "Great Satan," American players are confident most Iranian players care as little about the politics as they do.
"All the players are thinking it's been blown out of proportion," U.S. midfielder Cobi Jones said.
"We are playing against the people of the United States, not the government," Iran coach Jalal Talebi said.
Still, President Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright talked about the game this week, and Clinton videotaped a message that will be shown during halftime of at least one telecast.
Washington and Tehran are trying to thaw 20 years of ice-cold relations. U.S. players hope the political rivalry will intrigue fans back home.
"In the early 1990s, our best crowds used to be against the Soviet Union," Keller said, Fans tuned in with the idea of: "Let's go out and beat the old enemy."
Some Iranian players admit they feel added pressure. Star forward Khodadad Azizi, the 1996 Asian player of the year, said this week the game was "the most important of my life." After a World Cup warm-up game, he told reporters: "Many families of martyrs are expecting us to win. We will win for their sake."
U.S. players think Iran could get sidetracked by emotion.
"If they beat us, they've had a successful World Cup," Keller said. "I definitely expect the first 10, 15 minutes will be an emotional situation, especially for them."
The Americans see the game as an opportunity to win supporters among the non-soccer fans who may watch on television back home.
"It's nice to get some recognition from the political side of things," Keller said. "I kind of wish they'd support the team instead of just one game."
Iran held a final closed-door practice session before traveling to Lyon Saturday for the game, and planned to watch Iranian TV Friday night featuring a televised dinner held for their families in Tehran.
Across Tehran and other Iranian cities, cafes and restaurants have installed TV sets to attract customers during the game, and security has been increased.