15 - 21 June 2000
Issue No. 486
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
Egypt Region International Economy Opinion Culture Features Travel Living Sports Profile People Time Out Chronicles Cartoons Letters
The mellowing factorBy Nashwa Abdel-Tawab
Egypt beat Iran in football last week but diplomacy was the real victor in the first soccer match between the two nations.
As Richard Nixon's ping-pong diplomacy of the 1970s proved, sports and politics can complement each other rather nicely. Encounters on the field can also warm up frosty relations off it.
"Winning or losing is a secondary issue in these tournaments," said Mohamed Ghaffari, an Iranian soccer federation official, before the game. "They are a bridge between participating countries to expand friendly ties. We hope that football will serve as a means to improve political relations between us."
The head of the Egyptian delegation, Azmi Quraitem, called the event, which had an air of excitement and anticipation no less strong than that surrounding the US-Iran clash in the 1998 World Cup, "very symbolic."
"We may not have come but we did so eagerly because we want the two countries to have better ties," Quraitem said.
Iranian attacker Ali Daei in one of his many attempts to score against Egypt
Indeed, the two sides were in need of something to bridge their ideological differences and ease the tension in their relations strained since Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution. The match, part of a four-nation contest with South Korea and Macedonia, began after dozens of white doves of peace were released from boxes on the field.
The roughly 60,000 spectators had to wait until the second half for a goal. In the 52nd minute, Egypt's captain Hossam Hassan kicked the ball home from inside the penalty box. Egyptian fans, which appeared to number no more than 10, jumped out of their seats and waved their national flag.
Five minutes later Iran's captain Ali Daei replied, scoring a looping header. Following a 1-1 draw came a marathon penalty shootout. The first 10 spot kicks gave neither side the advantage. The shootout continued until Egypt went one up to win the match at 9-8.
In the final game of the tournament, Egypt fielded several junior players and not surprisingly lost to South Korea 1-0. Cho Je Kuvon scored the only goal 63 minutes into the game. Korea won the $50,000 grand prize for finishing first. Egypt received $40,000 for second while Iran came third after beating Macedonia 3-1.
As for the football side of this partly political match, the tournament served Egypt well. "I'm happy to win," Egyptian coach Mahmoud El-Gohari said. "But the most important thing was to prepare my team to play without the support of their own fans. We are drawn in a difficult group in the African qualifications to the World Cup and most of our decisive matches will be away games. We must be ready."
Egypt's first game in the qualifications is in Senegal in July. At the press conference in Tehran, El-Gohari said the tournament was a good chance for team officials to choose the best lineup. He said he had decided on roughly 70 per cent of the team that will play Senegal but would give the players a second look in a friendly with Ghana this Saturday. The final lineup will be announced on 24 June. "Only players who demonstrate full commitment will be called up," El-Gohari added.
Even though the tournament was a friendly one, El-Gohari was serious enough to send his players to practise only a few hours after the team's arrival following a nine-hour trip to Tehran. "We have no time to rest," said the 62-year-old coach, "We have to keep in mind that we are playing in the opening game and will meet the host team which will make it more difficult for us."
Jalal Talabi, the Iranian team coach, shared El-Gohari's views on the game's importance, calling up all his European-based players for the first time since the 1998 World Cup. They didn't help Iran capture the tournament but winning the event was in this particular instance of secondary importance.