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Iran Stuns U.S. At World Cup


This was humiliation, and it had nothing to do with politics.

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  • Iran eliminated the Americans from the World Cup with a 2-1 victory Sunday night in one of the most-heralded games the U.S. soccer team has ever played.

    On the world's stage with a chance to prove it belongs with the elite teams, the United States flopped, missing numerous scoring opportunities while the Iranians capitalized on the few they had.

    Much of the buildup to the game dealt with the countries' decades-long animosity toward each other. But on game day, the teams posed in a group photo together, exchanged flowers and pennants, and played clean, intense soccer.

    "It's not easy. It kind of sits in your stomach," U.S. midfielder Claudio Reyna said. "It's a bad feeling."

    Th Americans, who hoped to improve on their second-round finish four years ago, spent almost the entire game showing they really are the gang who couldn't shoot straight. They scored only with four minutes left when Brian McBride put a header in off defender Naim Saadavi.

    "It is a big victory for the Iranian nation," coach Jalal Talebi said, "not because it was the United States, but because it was Iran's first World Cup win."

    Three times, the United States hit the crossbar. Another time, the Americans hit the post. And several times, they missed wide-open shots the world's top teams would have easily put away.

    Iran made just one previous appearance in the World Cup, going 0-2-1 in 1978. It was regarded as one of the weakest teams in the field and for the first time in at least a half-century, the United States went into a World Cup game as a favorite.

    "I wouldn't change a thing," coach Steve Sampson said. "We could have easily won by three, four goals tonight."

    McBride hit the crossbar in the third minute, then hit the post in the 15th and Reyna hit the post in the 33rd.

    "The first two, three minutes, we were pummeling them," Cobi Jones said. "Then there started to be a letdown after 15, 20 minutes and they started to get into the game."

    Hamid Estili scored on a counterattack in the 40th minute. Mehdi Mahdavukia came through with a breakaway goal in the 83rd, giving Iran its first World Cup victory -- and setting off wild celebrations in Tehran, where the United States has been "The Great Satan" for nearly two decades.

    "Our reaction after they went 1-0 was not good," Reyna said. "As a team we sort of lost it, fell apart. We needed that halftime break."

    The poor marksmanship in the first half was just as evident in the second. Reyna missed on a bicycle kick in front of the net off a header pass from McBride in the 57th. Preki Radosavljevic was wide on an open header in the 63rd. David Regis hit the goalpost in the 68th and Frankie Hejduk sent a header right into goalkeeper hmad Abedzadeh with the entire net to shoot for in the 79th.

    The United States, needing a victory following an opening 2-0 loss to Germany, swarmed all over Iran through much of the game, but could only come up with the one late goal.

    At the end, the Iranian players mobbed each other on the field, then ran to a section of the stands filled with their countrymen. The teams exchanged jerseys, but the Iranians did not put on the American shirts.

    Before a loud, mostly pro-Iranian crowd of about 44,000 in Stade Gerland, the Americans were shown they have a long way to go before they are considered a world soccer power. Instead, they joined Saudi Arabia, Japan, South Korea and Jamaica as the first teams eliminated from the 32-nation field.

    Iran's victory undoubtedly will set off months of soul-searching in the American soccer community and could lead to the departure of Sampson, the first American-born coach of the national team.

    "You play that game 10 times and we are going to win it nine times," said U.S. Soccer Federation president Alan Rothenberg. "Unfortunately, this was the 10th."

    "You tell me what Steve did wrong tonight? I don't think it was the coach's fault, I don't think it was the players' fault. We played our hearts out, we played a perfect game. We didn't put the ball in the back of the net."

    While the U.S. team knew it would have a difficult time advancing from a first-round group that included European champion Germany, Yugoslavia and Iran, the Americans never anticipated they would fail so completely.

    Not even Sampson's all-out offensive lineup helped. Following the dismal loss to Germany, he changed five of his 11 starters in a move to add offense. While the Americans generated chances, they failed at opportunities for goals that most world-class players would have put away.

    The game had obvious ramifications beyond the field because of the strained relationship between the United States and Iran. The nations broke off diplomatic relations during the 1979-81 hostage crisis and President Clinton and other American officials saw this game as an opportunity for a thaw.

    Before the game, the starting lineups of both teams broke tradition and posed for the joint picture instead of the usual separate team photos - as requested by FIFA on Fair Play Day. Iranian starters gave their U.S. counterparts white flowers, and the Americans in turn gave them USSF pennants. Iran presented U.S. captain Thomas Dooley with a silver-colored plate.

    In one section of the stands, hundreds of fans wore T-shirts with the photo of Massoud Rajavi, head of an Iraq-based group opposed to the Islamic regime in place since the shah was ousted in 1979. About a dozen banners with the name of Rajavi and his wife Marjam were raised, but stadium security wrestled them away and forcibly removed some of the fans.

    "Mayb I saw," Talebi said, "but I don't want to interfere with something that is not my business."

    Notes

    Sampson inserted McBride, Moore, Tab Ramos, Roy Wegerle and Frankie Hejduk, benching career scoring leader Eric Wynalda, Ernie Stewart, Brian Maisonneuve, Chad Deering and Mike Burns. Stewart and Radosavljevic replaced Ramos and Wegerle in the 57th minute.

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