Arriving to a euphoric welcome by thousands of cheering locals in Tehran, Germany's national soccer team takes on Iran Saturday in a friendly that promises much star-packed action.
Waiting for the German soccer stars
In a welcome usually reserved for Hollywood stars, Germany's soccer players and new coach Jürgen Klinsmann were met by thousands of screaming fans on Thursday when they touched down at Tehran's Mehrabad airport.
Around 1,500 Iranians greeted the visitors with chants of "Germany, Germany" and "Welcome to Iran." The crowds were so large that security officials rushed the Germans out through a side entrance to their waiting bus.
"That was wonderful; it's fantastic to get a welcome like that when you're the visiting side," German team manager Oliver Bierhoff told reporters. "I've never seen anything like this," defender Christian Wörms said. "This is just overwhelming."
The euphoria is not hard to understand. Though Ireland played a world qualifier in Tehran in 2001 and Asian teams are regular visitors, Saturday's friendly marks the first time a major soccer power has visited the country since the Iranian Revolution in 1979.
"It's the biggest event for the fans since over 30 years," Branko Ivankovic, the Croatian trainer of Iran's soccer team said. "You can see how important the game is."
Tehran in a tizzy
Excitement has been mounting in Tehran over the past days with the city's 14 daily newspapers filling their pages with coverage and background on Saturday's game. Tehran's Azadi stadium is expected to be filled to tight capacity with an estimated 10,000 fans.
On Thursday, the frenzy was palpable at a chaotic press conference attended by the two sides at the German team's hotel.
Amid a swamp of journalists, security personnel and cameras, German coach Jürgen Klinsmann, who created a stir when he spontaneously whisked off his players for a sightseeing tour of the Shah's palace instead of a training session, said "That's how you get a feeling of where you are. It was really great fun."
Germans mean business
But the 40-year-old Klinsmann, who has ruffled a few feathers in German soccer circles with his unconventional ideas, made it clear that his team meant business.
"We've come here to win. For us it's a further important test for 2006 and we want to win it," Klinsmann said. "And the team that's here is confident of that."
Philipp Lahm in action during the Germany-Austria game
Klinsmann has already included several youngsters in the team that will play Saturday. Among them are Aston Villa's 22-year-old midfielder Thomas Hitzlsperger, Chelsea's Robert Huth, 20, VfB Stuttgart's Philipp Lahm (photo), 20, and 22-year-old Andreas Hinkel. "They will get a taste of what awaits them and will see whether they can come through it," Klinsmann said.
Germany, who have won the World Cup three times, will host the World Cup in 2006 and thus automatically qualify. In past weeks, a 3-1 win over Austria followed by a creditable 1-1 draw against Brazil have boosted the team's morale.
"We have made strides forward in the matches against Austria and Brazil and want to take another step in the right direction," Klinsmann said.
Sports mingles with politics
But for Iran, Saturday's game is a slightly different story.
Coach Ivankovic has said the game "comes at an unfortunate time." Iran plays a decisive World Cup qualification match against Qatar on Wednesday: A victory would take it a round further to qualifying for its third World Cup. In terms of its significance, the friendly with Germany pales in comparision.
"The players have to concentrate on Wednesday's game against Qatar," Ivankovic said.
Despite the mass enthusiasm for the sport, soccer in Iran is also linked to politics and the wills of the clergy. Since passion for soccer runs high in the country and has the capacity to mobilize thousands on the street, Iran's religious leaders tend to view it as a danger to the state.
Vahid Hashemian fights for the ball
The country's leadership has also exerted pressure on its players living abroad to toe their line. Striker Vahid Hashemian passed up a tour with Bayern Munich to Tel Aviv because Iran forbids contacts with Israel. The official explanation by Hashemian was that he had injured his back.
Hashemian has since returned to the Iranian national soccer team and will play against Germany on Saturday. "The people in Iran shouldn't have the impression that I don't want to play for our country," he said at the press conference.
Hashemian has also pointed to Iran's soccer potential. "Iran has 70 million inhabitants, 13 million alone live in Tehran. Soccer is played on every street," Hashemian said. "We have the potential to be the best team in Asia."
Female Iranian fans banned
Some are hoping Saturday's match might even have positive ramifications beyond sport borders.
German team manager Oliver Bierhoff said he hoped the game would promote international relations between Iran and Germany, which have soured because of Iran's refusal to comply with the UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), on its uranium-enrichment related activities.
"We can show sport is a way to connect people, especially with regard to problematic issues in Islamic countries," Bierhoff said.
Young Iranian women play soccer in a park in Tehran
But, Iranian authorities don’t seem to share the view. Iran's Soccer Federation on Tuesday upheld a ban on Iranian women attending stadiums even though many are the Islamic country's most passionate fans.