The former U.S. embassy in downtown Tehran now appears to be an abandoned estate. The lamps that once illuminated the main entrance are shattered; the American eagle emblem on the front gate is defaced and looks like an ancient artifact. A visitor peering through the gate sees no movement inside the walls, but there is one telltale sign of life—the open sewer that runs from the compound to the street is full of burbling brown water. The compound has, in a facile irony, been converted by the Islamic Republic of Iran into a training academy for its elite Revolutionary Guards.
For an American, standing at the gate of this compound is like standing before a headstone that marks a U.S. tragedy that occurred almost 19 years ago—66 American hostages in blindfolds, the frenzied chants of the Iranian mob as the U.S. flag was set ablaze. The words of the Ayatullah Khomeini, dead since 1989, are still painted in thick black letters on the brick wall that surrounds the compound: WE WILL MAKE AMERICA SUFFER A SEVERE DEFEAT.
When Khomeini's government finally released the hostages on Jan. 20, 1981, after 444 days in captivity, most Americans washed their hands of Iran. The two countries aren't on speaking terms officially—Iran still calls the U.S. the Great Satan; America accuses Iran of sponsoring terrorism—but on June 21 in Lyon, France, in a first-round World Cup match arranged by lottery, they will meet on the playing field. The enmity promises to make this much more than just another low-scoring soccer game: It will be the first chance for most Americans to view soccer through the prism of fervent nationalism that makes the World Cup tournament so provocative for the rest of the world.
While some Iranians see this match as an opportunity to further punish the Great Satan, most have a more pragmatic goal—they merely want their team to play well enough to earn the respect of the American people and the international community from which they have been cut off since Khomeini's Islamic fundamentalists came to power. Soccer is the one activity that transcends all the religious and political differences in Iran. "The U.S. embassy was about a block and a half from a major stadium where they used to play soccer matches," recalls Bruce Laingen, who was U.S. chargé d'affaires when he and me other Americans were taken hostage and who is now president of the American Academy of Diplomacy in Washington, D.C. "We could hear their cheers coming over the walls, whether they were celebrating a win or bemoaning a loss." Even now, children pour out of classroom windows at recess to claim a rectangle of asphalt for their daily game; men and boys commandeer the streets for what We would call pickup games, forcing traffic to either wait or find a detour.
As is true in virtually every country except Canada and the United States, soccer has become an expression of national character and identity in Iran. The efficiency and discipline of the Gentian armies is now exhibited by that country's national soccer teams. The Italians play with elegant, classical style. The English, to quote Churchill, "will never surrender." The Brazilians, the defending World Cup champions, play to a musical rhythm that no coach can teach—and this is much like the approach of the Iranians. They play their soccer in the streets, on basketball courts, even on highway medians; need and passion have bred ingenuity.
"I learned to play with the metal cap from a bottle of Coca-Cola," says Dr. Vahid Karbasi, 34, a pediatric intern at the Ali Asghar Hospital in Tehran. "It was important that the bottle be opened carefully so that the cap remained flat. After school four of us would play, two against two, with the bottle cap. I learned to make accurate passes of 10 to 20 yards."
The tale of the Khabiri brothers, heroes of the national team in the 1970s, has been woven into a modern Iranian legend. Mohammad was the introverted intellectual, Habib the charismatic extrovert. Mohammad played on the national team until 1976, when he came to the U.S. to study. (Others say he feared persecution by the shah's secret police.) Habib remained in Iran and became a national hero when he scored a dramatic goal from 40 yards out in a '78 World Cup qualifying match against Kuwait.
"Habib was the Iranian Kobe Bryant," says Manook Khodabakhshian, who was then a soccer announcer in Iran and now produces and hosts an Iranian radio show in Los Angeles. "Sometimes when I watch Kobe Bryant, I see Habib Khabiri. He was only 16 or 17 when he started to play for the national team. He was a very creative player. So young, such a happy guy."
In 1979 the shah abdicated and the fundamentalists took over. Habib, who had apparently fallen under the political sway of one of his teammates, Hassan Nayeb-Ajha (now a leader of the leftist muslim guerrilla Mujahedin forces based in Iraq trying to topple the Islamic fundamentalists), was eventually arrested. For several years he was one of Iran's "disappeared," lost in that country's gulag. Legend has it that the authorities repeatedly offered to set him free if he would denounce the Mujahedin, but Habib refused. Sometime in 1984, Habib was told that he would be set free the next morning. But when he was awakened, Habib was led out to the Wall of Allah Akhbar—Arabic for "God is great"—where he was executed. There has never been official acknowledgement of his death, which only intensifies the potency of his story.
Mohammad, who says he returned to Iran shortly after Habib's death, is understandably reluctant to discuss his brother, but many young Iranians openly revere Habib Khabiri. "They don't think of him as a terrorist, as a Mujahedin," says Khodabakhshian. "They talk of him the way Americans talk of James Dean, the rebel without the cause."