Politics and soccer. Patriotism and pride.
For months, American soccer players have been questioned about the huge and perhaps historic implications of Sunday's World Cup game against Iran. It took Alexi Lalas' sarcastic wit to put it all in perspective."This is a game that will determine the future of our planet," he said Saturday, "and possibly the most important single sporting event that's ever been played in the history of the world. So we're dealing with that."
Lalas then cut out the deadpan and resumed his normal tone of voice.
"It's just a soccer game," he said. "There's a lot of crap around here."
Sunday's game has huge ramifications for both teams. With a win, Iran would set off wild demonstrations back home, where Islamic clerics routinely denounce the United States as "The Great Satan" and whip crowds into frenzied chants of "Death to America!"
An Iranian win would clearly mean the death of the United States' hopes to advance to the second round. Only a combination of crazy results combined with a win over Yugoslavia could then avoid first-round elimination.
But an American win, especially following the embarrassing 2-0 loss to Germany in the dull opener, would give the United States a chance to avoid going home this week and maybe wipe out the view that this team is one giant yawn.
"It's a must-win situation for us," midfielder Frankie Hejduk said. "We're coming out with the attitude we have to win. There's no excuses. We've going to have to leave everything on the field."
Even the White House is talking about the game, with President Clinton and Secretary of State Madeline Albright using the occasion to discuss the possible resumption of diplomatic relations with Iran, cut off since the 1979-81 hostage crisis.
Just last month, the State Department called Iran the world's "most active" sponsor of terrorism, so it's clear both nations have raw nerves. Iran's delegation went batty last week when a French television station broadcast "Not Without My Daughter," a 1991 film based on the true story of an American woman who escaped Iran with her daughter against the wishes of her Iranian husband. The Iranians claimed the broadcast was a purposeful insult.
"It is imperative that we win against the USA," Iran forward Khodadad Azizi said. "For historical reasons, our country is a lot more sensitive to this meeting. Iran has been disappointed by Americans politics in recent years. This is the most important match of my life."
Because of the emotions, French organizers have increased security and FIFA has banned banners from the stadium.
With all that going on, U.S. players kept trying to play down the implications of the politics. To them, a win is necessary merely to validate they're better than the post-college all-star team that got swept at the 1990 tournament.
"We're trying to keep the politics out of it completely," U.S. coach Steve Sampson said after Saturday's practice at Stade Ger-land. "`But it is hard to ignore the fact that there is so much emphasis being put on this game."
Iran's players also were saying all the right things.
"I think that the media coverage is making this a sensitive fixture," goalkeeper Nima Nakisa said. "The most important thing is to have a friendly spirit on the pitch (field)."
That might be hard. The U.S. team has promised to come out hitting hard, and Iran had 30 fouls in its opening 1-0 loss to Yugoslavia.
"I think they will bring an emotional wave at the beginning of the game," American goalkeeper Kasey Keller said. "We have to handle that wave and worry about playing our game."
Sampson appeared set to shake up his lineup, inserting a trio of offensive players - Tab Ramos, Hejduk and Roy Wegerle - in place of Chad Deering, Mike Burns and probably Ernie Stewart.
Sampson, always secretive about his personnel decisions and tactics, wouldn't confirm the moves but did promise more action. Iran's primary goal-scoring threats - Azizi, Ali Daei and Karim Bagheri - are not nearly as imposing as Germany's forwards, so the Americans feel more freedom to take risks.
"We can't afford to start slow. We can't afford to play conservative," Sampson said. "We must attack and we must play for the three points."