U.S. vs. Iran

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“It’s a funny old game,” as they say in England, soccer’s birthplace. But the game’s sense of humor took a decidedly wicked twist with yesterday’s draw for the 1998 World Cup Finals in France. On June 21, U.S. captain John Harkes will lead his men out onto the field to face Iran.

“I don’t think President Clinton is going to that game,” said Harkes upon hearing that the Iranians would get their first crack at the country they call “Great Satan” since the seizure of the U.S. embassy in Teheran in 1979. U.S. Soccer Federation President Alan Rothenberg was more philosophical — "Maybe we can have soccer diplomacy like we had ping-pong diplomacy with China," he said — if not optimistic. "The only thing that can make it better is if FIFA designates an Iraqi referee," he added.

Ping-pong diplomacy with China is a more encouraging precedent, perhaps, than the 1969 World Cup qualifying rounds, when El Salvador defeated Honduras — and sparked a two-week war between the countries.