Wednesday, June 21, 2006

IRANIANS SEEKING POLITICS-FREE SPORT!

Iranians seeking politics-free sport.
By Laura Smith-Spark BBC News, Leipzig.

The World Cup has been a chance for Iran to present itself in a non-political light - at least that has been the hope held by Iranian football fans. Fans have turned out in force, many from Europe's Iranian diaspora.However, the country's three matches have attracted both demonstrations by pro-Israeli groups and the threat of neo-Nazi action. Questions have also been asked about the ban in Iran on women going to football matches. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was forced to go back on a promise to allow women into stadiums earlier this year following outrage from clergy. Women in Iran continue to protest against the ban, even as thousands of female fans have been flocking to the World Cup games in Germany. Iranians in Leipzig ahead of their team's final match, against Angola, were hoping this would not be what their participation would be remembered for. They came in numbers - mostly from Europe's Iranian diaspora - to cheer on their country.

Many said they were in Germany for the football and national pride - and wanted politics to be kept out of sport. Shayan Sadeghi, 35, who lives in Hamburg, said: "We hope the World Cup will change people's opinions. I think it has already. People will have an image of Iran which is more positive, more joyful. "There are always people who want to mix sport and politics but I think sport is peaceful and we shouldn't mix the two." Iranians who travelled from their home country said it had been difficult for many fans to make it to Germany.

Iranian fans discuss Iran's female football ban.

In pictures

"I'm very happy to be here. There are a lot of people who wanted to come with a group but they haven't been able to get a visa," said Mohammad, whose own paperwork took several months to clear. "It was very easy for some people who support the regime in Iran to come here. They have certain advantages because they support the political establishment." Iranian fans are aware their presence in the tournament has not been without controversy.

About 1,000 people, among them Israel supporters and exiled Iranians, rallied in Nuremberg when Iran played its opening World Cup match against Mexico, losing 3-1. A slightly smaller number joined a pro-Israel demonstration in Frankfurt on Saturday, where the Iranian team was defeated 2-0 by Portugal - sealing its failure to qualify for the next round. Leipzig city spokesman Christoph Hansel said between 300 and 400 people had joined a rally against anti-Semitism on Wednesday, at which Leipzig's Mayor Burkhard Jung spoke.

Sebastian Voigt said protests were not against the Iranian people.Mr Jung told the BBC News website he had decided to speak at the rally because the views of Mr Ahmadinejad on Israel went against his convictions. But at the same he was keen to welcome Iranian fans to the Zentralstadion and the city. Mr Jung said he had been confident the police were well prepared ahead of the game to ensure there would be no trouble from far-right groups. The demonstration was completely peaceful and no right-wing activities had been reported to the police, he said. Leipzig police spokesman Marko Laske said 1,800 police officers had been deployed - 200 more than usual on a match day - because of sensitivities surrounding the Iran-Angola match.

"We are very pleased with the situation. No right-wing groups disturbed the rally - it was very peaceful," he told the BBC News website. "In the stadium, of course, the fans of both teams were very peaceful and we hope that will continue through the next few hours." Mr Laske said police had been placed on alert after a suspicious package was found about 100m from the stadium. People in the surrounding area were briefly evacuated as a precaution but the package turned out only to be advertising material, he said.

Two men wearing skinhead badges are watched by police in Leipzig.Sebastian Voigt, a member of the coalition against anti-Semitism which organised the rallies, told the BBC News website: "We are not protesting against the Iranian people or the Iranian soccer team but against the Islamist regime in Iran and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad." Two men wearing skinhead T-shirts and badges were seen handing out leaflets - closely watched by police - as 50m away the coalition members prepared for their rally.One man, who would only give his name as Tim, acknowledged they were there because of the pro-Israel rally but denied they were racist.

Ahead of the tournament, concerns were raised that it might be unsafe for foreigners to go to parts of the former East Germany, including Leipzig, following a series of racially-motivated attacks. But the Iranian fans in town for the game appeared far more interested in football than race or politics. Kourosh Nazari, 18, from Dubai, said: "It's hard to change people's opinions. What can we do about it? We are football fans. "We are just here for our national team. Last night we partied in Leipzig - in a place where we are supposed to be scared of everyone. We've won all our games in terms of the support given by fans."

Mesam Heivary, 25, from London, said: "It's important for our country to be here. With all the problems and so on it's good for the nation to have something to celebrate. "It's great for Iranians to hang about with all the other people from different nations and walk arm-in-arm in the street. "I've not really been aware of the protests, which is a good thing. It gets on my nerves when I'm trying to watch football."
BBC SPORTS NEWS REPORT.

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