Topics of the day:
SAINT-ETIENNE, France, June 14 (AFP) - A serious blunder by Iran's stand-in goalkeeper Nima Nakisa spared Yugoslavia's blushes on their return to the World Cup finals after six years in the international wilderness. Nakisa, 23 and playing in only his eighth international in place of the injured Ahmad Abedzadeh, was caught badly out of position 18 minutes from the end as Sinisa Mihajlovic's 22-metre (25-yard) freekick whistled past him into the net. Mihajlovic, a defender with Sampdoria in Italy's Serie A, specialises in curling shots from set pieces. But his effort on this occasion only found the back of the net because Nakisa moved -- the wrong way -- before he struck it.
It was a heart-breaking blow for the Iranians who had until then comfortably matched the highly-rated Yugoslavs and looked set to secure an unexpected draw in their first World Cup finals appearance since 1978.
Despite the setback, Iran battled until the end and they twice went close to snatching what would have been a deserved equaliser in the closing minutes. Only a last-minute lunge by Goran Djorovic blocked Mehdi Mahdavikia from firing home after being put clear in the box by Cologne striker Khodadad Azizi. Then, with just minutes left, Ali Daei rose magnificently above the Yugoslav defence only to see his textbook header bounce straight into the arms of FC Porto's new signing Ivica Kralj.
Iranian coach Jalal Talebi refused to blame his young keeper for the defeat. "He is still very young and if we lost today it was because of the inexperience throughout the team not just him," Talebi said.
Despite the defeat, Iran's solid performance leaves them with grounds for optimism going into their politically-charged second match against the United States next Sunday. "We showed that we can hold our own against one of the best teams in the world and we will fight all the way," Talebi said. "If we are going to go down, we will go down fighting."
In contrast, Yugoslavia, who have been tipping themselves to cruise into the quarter-finals, will have to sharpen up considerably if they are to translate their outstanding collection of individual talents into an effective team performance in their second match against Germany. Coach Slobodan Santrac, clearly furious with his side's lacklustre performance, accused his players of failing to heed his warnings not to underestimate the Iranians. "I am satisfied that we won but I am not satisfied with the performance of my team," he said. "I told them Iran was a strong team but nobody believed me."
For Santrac, the biggest cause for concern was the poor performance of playmaker Dragan Stojkovic, who was completely outshone by the impressive Karim Bagheri in midfield and was substituted 20 minutes from the end. Striker Savo Milosevic said the side's chances of going far in the tournament should not be written off just because of one below-par performance. "We were quite lucky to win but we've got the three points and that is what counts." "The first game is always difficult especially if you are playing a team that gets eight or nine players behind the ball."
Milosevic admitted that Yugoslavia would have to be sharper for their next clash, against Germany. But he added: "Sometimes it is easier to play against good teams." Yugoslavia dominated the early exchanges and went close to opening the score in the 15th minute when big defender Djorovic met Stojkovic's corner with a looping header that bounced off the bar with Nakisa stranded.
But after overcoming their early nerves the Iranians settled down and began to push forward as the Yugoslavs struggled to find their rhythm. Bhagari combined sweetly with Azizi down the right to create an opening for Mehdi Mahdavikia, who blasted the ball straight at Ivica Kralj in the Yugoslav goal. The best chance of the opening period fell to Mehrdad Minavand Chal. Daei and Azizi combined to send the midfielder into the box on the left then watched in dismay as he failed to hit the target from close range.
By Ramin Tabib Los Angeles June 12, 1998 The Iranian
I never cared much for soccer. It never ignited much interest in me as it did in my friends. The game never grew on me enough to make me want to be a part of it. In Iran and later here in the U.S., I never followed soccer closely. It was part of my heritage, but then so are shirin-polo and baabaa karam and I never cared for them either.
Having lived in the U.S. did not help the matter much. I followed American football, took up a fanatic interest in Los Angeles/Oakland Raiders and, of course, the mighty Lakers basketball team. The year in sports divided in two parts: fall was devoted to American football and spring to basketball. Soccer was a distant memory like the pastry shop near Amaniyeh in Tehran. I could remember it if I tried -- but why try?
Why? The reasons arrived one by one in the past few months.
It started with a piece of gossip I heard about a distant relative. A few months ago -- and after watching the Iranian team making a goal on TV in the middle of night -- the man jumped so high that he hit the chandelier, which came crashing down on him. I was actually glad the chandelier was torn down; it was a kitsch piece of bad design, but the fact that the game had excited him so much made me wonder what I was missing.
Then came bits and pieces of information through conversations here and there. The Paraguayan shoe-repairman near my house chewed my head off one morning about his country's team and a guy named Jose Chilavert, the goal-keeper. It was as if Chilavert was his son and he had just performed the first brain transplant operation. A Mexican hot dog vendor near my work talked of Luis Hernandez and his famous attack as if this was a military general on a battle against the Spanish colonialists. Our Czech information officer at the office has been so excited in the past few weeks that he is like a live wire -- I'm afraid to be near him -- and the Czech team is NOT even represented in the World Cup. He is excited only because he wants to see teams like Germany and Austria be decimated by the likes of Argentina and the Netherlands. He has never forgiven the Austrians and the Germans for mistreating him when he was a refugee!
And of course there is this close friend of mine, who thinks he is both Iranian and Brazilian. Every time the Brazilian team plays and Ronaldo comes on the field, he sits two feet away from the 42-inch TV and watches the game as if in a trance, caught in an empyreal world that, he says, is known only to the real soccer stoics.
All these made me dig into the soccer mania deeper and get involved in the hysteria of the World Cup. But it was still unnatural to me. I still could not get myself hyped the way I do for American football, and the Iranian team didn't do it for me the way the Raiders bring my blood to a boil.
That changed when I saw an interview with an Iranian player on TV. It was a Thursday night around 1 a.m. One of the Iranian channels in LA was broadcasting an interview with Khodadad Azizi -- an interview they had shamelessly (how else?) stolen from the Islamic TV. It may have been the time or maybe it was the quiet of Thursday night, but most probably it was Azizi that did it for me.
The man, who seemed Turkman, and was hailed as the best Asian football player of 1996, showed such great nobility and grace in his words, gestures and overall conduct that he made me stay glued to the TV. In between there were footages of his plays for both the Iranian team and FC Koln in Germany where he plays professionally. I felt my blood boil for the first time for his style of soccer and the way these players attacked the opposite team and passed the ball between themselves. That was it. I was now a soccer fan and soon learned of the rest of the team: Ali Daei, Karim Bagheri, Abedzadeh and so on.
And then came the final motivation I needed. Last week, ten days before the World Cup started, the Los Angeles Times featured a whole section on the teams and their prospects. I rushed to Group F and Iran. There were the usual comments about problems with coaches and the U.S.-Iran game and so on. But there was a comment at the end where predictions were made. It said: "...three games and back to soccer on sand."
You @%$&*# ! morons, I said again and again.
I'll be home this Sunday, glued to my TV trying to enter the trance of soccer stoics. I will watch Iran march on the field in France to face the Yugoslav army (sorry, I meant the Yugoslav team), and if they win, and if they beat the U.S. team next, I will personally hand-deliver a bucket of sand to LA Times.
This is WAR.
Yugoslav press slams Santrac, team
Copyright © 1998 Nando.net
BELGRADE (Tanjug) - Yugoslav media slammed national manager Slobodan Santrac and his squad on Monday for its lackluster performance against Iran in a World Cup group F match on Sunday.
"It went from weak, to weaker, to weakest," said the daily Politika.
"Sinisa Mihajlovic rescued the team," ran a headline in the daily, referring to the man who scored the winning goal from a free kick in the second half after 70 minutes of disappointing and disconnected play.
"Mihajlovic, Our Love," Sportski Zurnal said in a huge front-page headline.
"For the umpteenth God sent down Sinisa Mihajlovic to show us that he holds the fate of our team in his left foot, but this is exactly what should worry us the most," said the daily.
"Nothing at all can be achieved without a full 90-minute collective effort," it added.
"It would be a suicidal theory to keep pinning our hopes on Mihajlovic canceling all previous mistakes with a single kick," said the daily.
It slammed team manager Slobodan Santrac for sticking to a tired team full of veteran players.
"The entire sporting public has long been demanding that Santrac show some courage and give a chance to youngsters Dejan Stankovic and Perica Ognjenovic, as well as Real Sociedad's Darko Kovacevic, who is in top form.
"Throughout the first half the team played an endless and completely outdated game full of short passes. In the second Stankovic brought harmony to three segments of the team which were in total collision in the first 45 minutes," said Sportski Zurnal.
The daily also criticized veteran playmaker Dragan Stojkovic and welcomed his second-half replacement by Kovacevic. "Stojkovic ... must look for simpler and quicker solutions," it said.
"It was slow, complicated and bloodless ... until Stojkovic, Branko Brnovic and Savo Milosevic were replaced," the daily Sport said.
"Kovacevic, Stankovic and Ognjenovic brought in speed, briskness and also some connective tissue," it added.
Disappointed fans heaved a huge sigh of relief when the referee blew the final whistle.
"We could only play better against Germany next Sunday," said one.
"After all, we couldn't possibly play any worse."
Copyright © 1998 Nando.net Copyright © 1998 Reuters
ST GALMIER, France (Jun 15, 1998 - 10:45 EDT) - Yugoslav coach Slobodan Santrac praised Iran on Monday for a solid World Cup performance even though they lost 1-0 to his team in Sunday's group F match.
"Our players wanted to play better but they didn't because Iran closed us down quickly," said Santrac. "It wasn't possible for our team to perform as they wanted."
Midfielder Dragan Stojkovic also conceded that Yugoslavia had labored through a subdued performance won with a solitary goal from free-kick specialist Sinisa Mihajlovic.
"We didn't play well," said Stojkovic. "But Iran had an excellent defense and played with seven or eight defenders. The most important thing was that we won."
Stojkovic said Santrac had made the right decision when he took him off in the second half. "My legs were tired," he said.
Keeper Ivica Kralj said one of the problems was that before the match everybody said it was going to be an easy game.
"Such matches are the most difficult," said Kralj, "but one of the characteristics of great teams is that they win even when they perform badly."
Santrac put his players through a one-hour training session on Monday as they tried to analyze what went wrong.
They need to find the right formula as they prepare to face their toughest match in the group on June 21.
The Yugoslavs play Germany in Lens that day, while Iran take on the United States in Lyon.
Yugoslavia should have AC Milan striker Dejan Savicevic back in the team by then after a long lay-off with a thigh injury.
Officials said he was 99 percent fit and could have played
in Sunday's match, but Santrac did not want to risk him against Iran. "He should be ready for Germany," said one official.
Savicevic has been training with the rest of the squad and was out on the practice pitch again this morning.
"His condition is getting better," said Santrac. "He's making progress every day."
By KEN FERRIS, Reuters