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May 26, 2009

Soccer diplomacy with Iran

cross-posted from democracyarsenal.org
We had ping pong diplomacy with China, and now we may soon engage in soccer diplomacy with Iran.
Reports out of Tehran indicate that the US Soccer Federation has inquired about the possibility of holding a friendly with Iran sometime in October and November. The AP reported:

A soccer game between the United States and Iran this fall could be in the works. The possibility exists after the head of Iran’s soccer federation said Monday he received a proposal from his U.S. counterpart about an exhibtion game in October or November… Iran Football Federation chief Ali Kafashian told the Fars news agency the Iranians are considering the offer. But USSF spokesman Neil Buethe would neither confirm nor deny the offer… a soccer match would be an extremely high-profile event in Iran, where the sport is a national passion.

In 1971 – a year before Nixon went to China – US table tennis players visited China in what marked a thaw in tensions between U.S. and China. Soccer is the biggest sport in Iran and the public has tremendous pride in the Iranian national team. Having the U.S. team travel to Tehran would to send a signal that both sides are ready for a significant thaw in relations. Perhaps a high-level American dignitary would go as well.   
To make this even more interesting, having struggled in World Cup qualifying, Iran recently replaced their coach with an American citizen. Yes an American citizen is coaching the Iranian national soccer team. Afshin Ghotbi was born in Iran but gained American citizenship after living in the U.S. since a teenager – he even played soccer at UCLA and was an assistant coach for the U.S. in the 1998 world cup when we lost to Iran.
If the game goes forward, not only would it be smart diplomacy on the part of the U.S., it would also be smart preparation by coach Bob Bradley in the run-up to the World Cup. The Iranian side is quite good and will expose the U.S. team to a different style of play. Additionally, I can’t think of an environment that would better prepare the U.S. for the world cup then playing in Tehran. All in all seems like a great idea. Hopefully, the Iranians – despite their world cup qualifying difficulties – take us up on the offer.
And to top it off maybe we can finally avenge that 2-1 1998 world cup loss.

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