After a series of calls to underground sources in the local Iranian community, I finally get the info I’ve been waiting for: The best and most Persian place to watch the Iran-Portugal World Cup match is the IMAN Center in Century City, home of the local branch of the Iranian Muslim Association of North America.
At 5:55 a.m., families rush through the heavy wooden gates into the long Iran Hall, its name written in sinuous metal letters above the entrance. Inside, Koranic calligraphy in massive gold frames decorates the walls, sobering the otherwise hopped-up football fans. The doorman hails me with a hearty Sob behkair! (Good morning) and alternately greets my Russian-American female friend with a deep, English “Hello .?.?.” In the back of the hall, a Persian breakfast of hard-boiled eggs, Iranian cheese and bread, pastries and strong, spiced tea is laid out on white sheets. A handful of young Iranian guys straggles in late, looking like they came direct from the disco, and stuff their faces full of starch.
The game blares from stadium speakers, projected onto a huge screen, and the Iranian national anthem sounds out gloriously. The rows of folding seats, the banquet tables, and the pomp of the song lend the moment a sense of weddinglike anticipation. On TV, the channel says “ESPN2,” but, through the wonders of piracy and radio, the announcers speak in mellifluous Farsi.
During the pregame, an ominous headline flashes on screen — Judgment Day for America — recalling President Ahmadinejad’s letter to President Bush. It’s actually ESPN’s dramatic tease for the Americans’ next game.
Five minutes after kickoff, the noises of frustration begin. Portugal monopolizes the ball, and the Iranians seem nervous and slow. After a botched play, you can hear an annoyed tongue-to-teeth click — the Middle-Eastern sound of disapproval. When an Iranian player loses the ball between his legs, someone yells out, “You suck!”
After Javad Nekounam misses Iran’s best chance to score from close range, a man in his 50s next to me puts his finger tips to his head and then flicks his hands open as though he hopes to get rid of the brain junk that caused the poor player to misfire. When Iran gets the ball within striking range, the women let out blood-curdling screams of excitement. As the shot sails over the top of the net, people slap their foreheads and beat their thighs, providing fodder for many Shi’ite self-flagellation jokes (but I won’t go there). And when Deco scores Portugal’s first goal — a rocket shot from downtown — we all cover our faces in agony.
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Looking for something less depressing to focus on than the score, I switch my attention to an aspect of the game that was going better for the Iranian players: their hair. Thick, Persian locks, long and almost effeminate in a subtle gesture of mullah defiance, cavort like Medusa’s snakes when an Iranian player is on the run. When the ESPN camera rests a moment on the faces of Iran’s team, with their chiseled faces, slicked black hair and calm smiles, they form a Middle-Eastern Mount Rushmore, and the women break out in hushed asides — some even sighing audibly. The Portuguese, on the other hand, have headbands and bows taming their manes.
Remembering the 1998 Romanian team that dyed its collective hair peroxide blond when it qualified for the second round, my friend and I speculate that the Iranians should shave their heads, have the hair woven into top-quality wigs, and donate them to American cancer charities as an act of international détente if they advanced.
The audience jeers and the announcers pronounce his name with increasing contempt whenever Cristiano Ronaldo, the star of the Portuguese side, touches the ball (which is often). To this crowd he embodies the arrogance of flashy Portugal, with his complicated footwork, plucked eyebrows and incomprehensible rat-tail mullet. (“Vat da hell is dat?!” says one bewildered woman.)
In the first half, Ronaldo shoots blanks, but in the second he earns a penalty shot, and stares down the goalkeeper from behind his manicured brows before placing his game-winning goal in the top left corner. “What a heartbreaker,” someone says, as Iran’s players leave the field, winners only of the consolation prize of best-looking team.