PRAGUE, June 11, 2006 - Two days before Iran's first match in the World Cup in Germany, fans of the team were out on the streets, celebrating the team's third appearance in the world's premier soccer competition and chanting "Iran, we love you!"
But for some, Iran's participation in the cup is anything but a cause for celebration. German authorities are concerned that the team's presence, and a visit to the tournament by Vice President Mohammad Aliabadi, present an opportunity for German extremists to give voice to their cause. Germany's most extreme nationalists see an ally in Iran's president, who has denied that the Nazi genocide of Jews during World War II ever took place and has called for the destruction of Israel.
On June 10, around 200 supporters of Germany's extremist National Democratic Party (NPD) allied themselves with Iran during a march in the World Cup host city Gelsenkirchen. The marchers, many with shaved heads and black clothes, chanted "Solidarity with Iran," as well as "Foreigners out." That demonstration was met with a far larger counterprotest, with some activists shouting "Nazis out" and throwing fruit at the nationalists.
World Cup organizers fear that the June 11 match between Iran and Mexico in Nuremberg, a former Nazi stronghold, provides an opportunity for similar clashes. Extremists are expected to make another appearance, while Jewish groups have called for a protest against Vice President Aliabadi's presence at the game. The newly elected head of Germany's Jewish community, Charlotte Knobloch, wrote in an opinion piece in the newspaper "Bild am Sonntag" that German citizens must prevent German extremists and Iranian leaders from forming "an explosive anti-Semitic alliance." But a German government spokesman, Thomas Steig, on June 9 said that Ahmadinejad's rhetoric should not reflect on Aliabadi, who, Steig said, has not personally made similar statements denying the Nazi Holocaust.
The tensions may come to a head if Ahmadinejad himself makes an appearance at the World Cup. He has said he may attend Iran's games in the tournament if the team progresses to the later rounds. Jewish groups have called for Ahmadinejad to be banned from entering Germany, where denying the Holocaust is a crime. The government maintains, however, that he is protected by his diplomatic status.
Iran's national team, meanwhile, is struggling to avoid the issue and focus on football. Coach Branko Ivankovic, a Croat, said it is only natural that Ahmadinejad, a football fan, would want to visit Germany to see his team play, and sidestepped any questions about the president's politics.
Ivankovic added that the hopes of many Iranians are pinned on today's game. The Iranian team is viewed as a rank outsider in the competition, but, Ivankovic said, "in football everything is possible, [and the] Iranian people during their history many times made things which were impossible to be possible."
Also, we came here with big hope, we gave our people big hope, and of course we will try our best to make these people satisfied."
After the Mexico match, Iran is slated to play Portugal and Angola to determine who will move on to the next round. And whether or not extremists rally around today's game, Iran's fans will undoubtedly turn out in force.