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Iran’s Holy Goal Chance To Shine In Soccer World Cup Instills New Fervor In Passionate Land

They don’t do the wave or the tomahawk chop at Tehran University’s weekly prayer day. They usually prefer the fist-waving chants of “Death to America.”

But, Friday’s turnout took on a pep rally atmosphere as thousands of Muslims focused on soccer instead of the usual protests against Israel and U.S. imperialism.

Iran has World Cup fever after making it to the tournament for the first time since 1978, a year before the Islamic Revolution.

Many say the street demonstrations after Iran qualified for the tournament last Saturday were just as festive as the celebrations of the 1979 revolution.

Thursday, the world learned that Iran and the United States will play against each other in World Cup competition in France on June 21.

Friday, gleeful Iranians snapped photos and offered cheek kisses to several members of the Iranian soccer team as they took seats in the VIP section of the large university pavilion used for prayer and speeches.

Shoeless according to religious custom, but otherwise sharply dressed in leather jackets and warm-up gear, the athletes stepped forward to accept their honors. The crowd of more than 10,000 Muslims offered loud chants of “Allahu Akbar!” - God is Greatest.

There was plenty of politics - but only from the politicians.

Others in the vast audience wanted to keep politics and sports separate.

Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati said the team’s trip to the World Cup is a victory in both politics and sports.

“Many people wanted to hinder us from entering the World Cup,” he said. “Because we are Muslims, they didn’t want us to win.”

The match against the United States will be politically charged because the two countries have clashed repeatedly since revolutionary Iranians stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and took 52 hostages in October of 1979. They were released 444 days later.

The United States imposes sanctions on Iran and brands it a supporter of terrorism. The Iranians have called the Untied States “the Great Satan” for backing the oppressive regime of the late Shah of Iran and for supporting Israel over Palestinians.

“It (the game) is extremely important,” said Sayed Jafa Qazari, head of a small mosque in Tehran. “This is the path of our Iranian life, and we will have victory over America.”

But many Iranians just wanted to emphasize the sporting aspect of the games.

Take star goal scorer Ali Daie, whose responses to reporters seemed as if they might be coming straight from an International Manual of Athlete Cliches.

“The game is still just football (soccer),” he said. “It is different than politics. We want to play well, no matter who it’s against,” Daie said.

He added, however: “We hope the Islamic Republic of Iran is better than the U.S. We try to show Iran’s power to all the teams.”

Even while many Iranians chant anti-American slogans, they are welcoming to individual Americans. Soccer fans - and that seems to include almost everyone here - said the games might even build some goodwill.

“Maybe this game will cause a friendship between the United States and Iran,” said Hussein Ghaemi, a 32-year-old director in the Iranian Industry Ministry.

“If they don’t give a political meaning to the game, we will be happier,” he said.