Politics Aside, U.S.-Iran Match Carries Plenty of Importance

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SAINT-JEAN D'ARDIERES, France - An opening 2-0 loss to Germany behind it now, the U.S. national soccer team is preparing for a match that has been one of the hottest topics of the World Cup.

The United States will face a must-win situation Sunday when it tangles with Iran in a Group F match.

While much of the world focuses on the social and political ramifications of the first soccer meeting between the two nations, the game carries extra importance because each team lost its opening game, with Iran falling to Yugoslavia 1-0. The loser of Sunday's game probably will not advance to the second round.

First-round group play ends Thursday with the U.S. playing Yugoslavia and Iran squaring off against Germany. Meanwhile, Sunday's opponents are concentrating on the game, not the political sideshow.

"They want three points; we want three points," said U.S. defender Thomas Dooley. "We have a lot more pressure on us now [to win] then we did against Germany, when we had almost none. We have to win against Iran; we can't play for a tie."

Said Iran coach Jalal Tabebi: "We will play harder in [Sunday's] game because we need to win to stay in the competition. With Yugoslavia, all we wanted was not to lose. This is the one game we have a chance to win."

Iran's performance Sunday against Yugoslavia at Saint-Etienne was impressive despite a 1-0 loss to a side that is well-respected.

The Iranians deployed a quick midfield that linked well, especially on counterattacks, with forwards Khodadad Azizi and Ali Daei. Daei, who plays professionally in Germany with midfield leader Karim Bagheri and Arminia Bielefled, was the leading scorer in international soccer last year. Meanwhile, Bagheri scored 19 goals in 17 qualifiying matches. Azizi, one of the quickest players on the Iranian side, was named Asia's top player in 1996.

Talebi is the fourth coach to lead Iran since last fall. He took over after Croatia's Thomaslav Ivic was fired less than three weeks before the World Cup opened. …