U.S.-Iranian Game Is Victory for Harmony
Soccer: Americans on both sides say the contest should inspire healing of the two nations' rift.
By EDWARD J. BOYER, Times Staff Writer

     The loudest cheers came after the game was over, when members of the U.S. and Iranian soccer teams exchanged jerseys, high-fives and sweaty embraces after playing to a 1-1 tie Sunday at the Rose Bowl.
     Those gestures were a fitting bookend to pregame ceremonies, when U.S. players presented each starting Iranian team member with a bouquet of roses.
     This was a soccer match with geopolitical implications. And although it was played in America's Rose Bowl, the crowd definitely belonged to the Iranian team.
     Slightly more than 50,000 partisans turned out for the game, with thousands in adjacent sections wearing alternating red, white and green clothing--the colors of Iran's flag.
     "It's amazing that there are so many Iranians here," said Elizabeth Alvaro, a Latina from Whittier who had come to the game with her Iranian in-laws. "I didn't know there were so many."
     While many in the crowd oppose the government of Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, they were solidly behind the team.
     Some Iranian fans had announced that they would show their opposition to the regime by remaining seated during the Islamic Republic of Iran's national anthem.
     That planned silent protest was short circuited, however, when only the U.S. national anthem was played before the game. Still, some fans wore T-shirts with political messages, such as: "Freedom and Democracy for Iran in the New Millennium."
     At least five single-engine planes circled the stadium throughout the match, trailing banners welcoming the Iranian team, promoting a candidate for U.S. Congress and protesting alleged human rights abuses in Iran, among other messages.
     But Sunday was more of a party than a protest. And what was demonstrated most was just how fanatical Iranians are about soccer.
     They came waving thousands of flags. Volunteers shoved small paper versions through the window of any car whose occupants asked for them.
     Parking lots outside the stadium were filled with tailgate parties, an American tradition that Iranians have embraced.
     At one party, Mehdi Nasr, an electrical engineer from Thousand Oaks, and about a dozen relatives were stoking up on food before the game.
     "This food is a melting pot--French bread, American bologna, Iranian-style potato salad and Mexican hot peppers," he said. "America is a melting pot, and Los Angeles is the center."
     There are an estimated 600,000 people in Southern California of Iranian ancestry, and they are very much aware of the political implications of Sunday's game, but Nasr said these are "good politics."
     "There is no problem between the nations, the people," he said. "The governments have the problem."
     He put on his best diplomatic face when asked to predict the game's outcome.
     "At the end, both sides will be winners."
     Inside, the only identifiable area of U.S. support came from a sliver of fans--just as colorful but only a tiny fraction the size of the Iranian crowd--who sat near the corner of one goal.
     Between periods, with Iran leading 1-0, a high-energy group of Iranian fans at a refreshment stand began chanting, "U.S.A., U.S.A., U.S.A. is going to lose today."
     Before they could get back into the stadium, the Americans had tied the score.
     When the game was over, Kio Bahrami, a businessman from Granada Hills, said he had never seen so large a gathering of Iranians in Los Angeles.
     "No event can compare with this," said Bahrami, Alvaro's brother-in-law. "Nothing here has ever brought out so many Iranians."
     His wife, Claudia, said she was especially touched by the American team's gesture before the start.
     "Giving the flowers was really beautiful, very nice," she said.
     Her husband added: "I think the governments should exchange flowers."
     Perhaps the game's outcome was foretold by some of the flags passed out to spectators.
     One side bore the Stars and Stripes, the other had the colors of the Iranian flag.
     One American fan, Jennifer Guarino of Aliso Viejo, sat behind a couple holding one of those flags.
     "And they were holding hands," she said. "That was great."
     It is time for the U.S. and Iran to take steps to improve relations between the two countries, she and her friends agreed.
     "I think the past is the past," Guarino said. "It's gone."