There’s a picture from Iran’s famous 1998 World Cup victory over the USA. In it, the two teams pose for a squad photo, Iranian with American, American with Iranian, most of them smiling at each other, arms round shoulders, hands on knees. They believe, as the American defender Jeff Agoos said at the time, that they had done more for relations between their two countries “in 90 minutes than the politicians did in 20 years”.
Unfortunately, those familiar with the news will know that those 1998 players didn’t exactly heal the relationship between Iran and the United States. Things are looking up, though; sanctions on the Iranians eased earlier this year, and now both countries are freaking out about the Sunni militant group Isis – pretty much Everyone’s New Worst Nightmare – that is currently taking over Iraq.
The idea that the US and Iran might stop hating each other quite so much, if only for practical reasons, doesn't seem so impossible. With that in mind – and with the football teams of both nations playing in the World Cup on the same night – it was time to go and spend some time with their fans. I wanted to find out if the love of football, combined with the hatred of a shared blood-thirsty enemy, could bring the two old foes together.
First, I hit the Henry Holland pub off Bond Street in Mayfair. The upstairs room had been taken over by a load of Iranian fans for their opening game with Nigeria.
In defiance of stereotypes, this was a boozing ‘n’ no burkas affair made up of mainly young men and women with the odd football-playing child. One Iranian woman had been joined by two friends of hers – one from Italy, one from Germany – and the three of them sat on the floor eating supermarket houmous with crisps. It was exactly the mix of rowdy and wholesome that advertising executives love to try and tap into.
Iran, like the US later that night, were going into the game as underdogs. Nigeria were expected to brush aside an Iranian team that had been plagued by “shrinking socks and small boots”.
Early on, it certainly looked that way. “You’ve got no hope,” sang Sam, wearing an England shirt and a Brazil cap, swinging a Guinness about as his Iranian team reeled from an early Nigerian onslaught. “Come on, guys, make some noise!” he hollered in Farsi, but everyone was already doing pretty well. As the match went on and it looked increasingly likely that Iran were going to get a point – and that they might even nick it with a late winner – the room got louder and louder.
My Iranian friend Pegah, whose dad and brother had been at the famous 1998 USA match, had come along with me for the vibes and “to find my future Persian husband”. She was acting as my translator and gave me the run down on the best chants. The first involved singing: “We’re going to put dust on your head,” at the Nigerian players, which is about the most poetic way a fan can threaten an opposition player with burial. The next revolved around “putting holes” in the opposition, which could either be tearing them a new asshole or putting holes in their body with bullets. At least, amid all the boozing and flirting, the Iranians were taking time out to doff their cap to national stereotypes.
I asked some of the fans about the Americans and suggested that now, with Iraq falling apart, it might be time for Iran and the US to come together. “We’ve always been together, really,” said a guy called Kouros, a diplomat to his core, highlighting the difference between people, who can often be relied to get along, and states, which often can’t.
A couple of his friends thought the victory in 1998 was all the sweeter for it being against the Americans, but Kouros disagreed. “If we think that it’s particularly good to beat the USA because of the political situation, then it will always be a problem. Football can be something that brings us together. It’s not something that divides us,” he told me.
Nigeria, whose dreadful performance didn't even have the redeeming charm of a comedy Yakubu miss, were held to a draw and the room erupted. The Iranians, all friends by now, spilled out onto the streets, and Kouros and Sam agreed to act as Iranian goodwill ambassadors and come with me to watch USA vs Ghana at an American-style “clubhouse” in Covent Garden.
If the Iranian party had been a rowdy yet familial-feeling affair, then this was something altogether more hormone-drenched.
American students looking and acting like the cast of an American Pie straight-to-DVD World Cup special packed out the underground warren, which sold pizzas that referenced Friends, Ferris Bueller and American Beauty.
Our Iranian ambassadors were welcomed with only a side-order of confusion, and soon Sam – draped in his nation’s flag – was among the bro-mericans. He'd barely had the time to holler “U-S-A!” before Texas’ finest poacher Clint Dempsey hit the net to take Team USA into the lead.
While the popularity of football in America has skyrocketed in the last decade – particularly among the young – it still represents a relatively alt. pursuit for the non-Latino Yank. As such, while there were definitely some nerds there who knew their stuff, there were also some jocks who were acting more like Australians – just there for the shouting, drinking and nationalism.
“Americans are more fun as football fans because they’re secretly rooting for both teams because they don’t actually care,” Katie – a soccer player and lacrosse maestro – told me.
While I couldn't help but think that some of the Americans were getting something fundamentally wrong – the vibe more akin to a frat party than a flat-roof pub – what they were doing wasn't all that different from anyone else. At any match, for every guy who can offer you a disquisition on the 3-4-3 formation employed by Roberto Martinez as Wigan manager, there’s a guy who’s in it for the community spirit and drinking. In among the heaving, throbbing mass of American youth I found a thoughtful Texan who went on at length about Dempsey’s runs.
And, at a table next to him, the most depressed-looking guy you’ll ever see in an American flag onesie, who, nevertheless, made some observations about wing-backs that any Englishman would be glad to claim as his own. In any case, half of the point of the World Cup is surely that people who don't always watch can get involved with everyone else. In that sense, the Americans were some of the most authentic fans around.
It was past midnight now, and with the crowd in full student night mode I decided to get involved. I chugged beers, I briefly hauled my 12-stone frame onto the back of a girl called Diana half that weight and, joining the most serious fans for the last ten minutes of the game, I tried not to be too smug when Ghana equalised.
I didn’t need to worry, though. A few minutes later, German-raised defender John Brooks headed home the US winner and finally their Ghanaian hex was broken. Sweaty men rubbed my belly as the only Ghanaian in the pub made for the exit, chuckling wryly, hollering “stupid boys, stupid boys!” as he shook every American hand between him and the exit.
Lust was in the air, and the success of their fighting lads had got the Americans horny. Couples were making out all over the place, the sexy spirit of Clint Dempsey coursing through their veins.
At the full time whistle, a big “U-S-A!” chant roared through the bar. There, in a sweaty basement in London – with a freelance drinks girl selling Jägerbombs – was the future of football as a spectator sport in one of the few countries that it hasn’t already colonised.
Often confused, occasionally clued up and all drunk, they were here to show that when it comes to patriotism, you don’t want to let a little thing like knowing the rules get in the way. And Iran – in the form of Sam, Kouros and Pegah – was with them every step of the way. Football really can bring people together as much as it can tear them apart. Maybe there's some hope that one day, American and Iranian presidents will watch a game over some beers and the goal of World Peace won't seem quite so far away.