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A nation smiles again
Darya Kabob was in ecstasy; everyone hugging each other, slaps of high fives everywhere, joy resonated at every corner

October 18, 2004
iranian.com

"In all my 24 years as a sports reporter, I have never experienced such football euphoria than what you see in Iran, not even in South America. It is unique."
- Bela Rethy , covering the Iran-Germany match for the German ZDF public television

I have always prided myself on being able to keep my emotions in check; rarely does anyone break the facial façade I put on, which entails a face of stern resolve mixed in with a hint of arrogance. I seldom crack a genuine smile that comes from the soul, and even more scarce is to see me in tears, either of joy or sadness.

Granted, there have been a few instances in my lifetime where I have not been able to control my passions from exhibiting themselves outside, however, those have been few and far between. Saying this, I must stress that I do smile, for I am human after all, and my life is full of happiness and moments of joy.

But after Iran's victory over Qatar, an everlasting smile has been imprinted on my face, so much so that classmates at school, professors, friends, and those special girls in my life, have all commented on this smile that has yet to leave my face. Thus, this story is not about the game in itself as a sport, but a tale of my smile and that of Iran's.

October, 13th, 2004. A smile was re-born on a cloudy day in a small kabobi restaurant on the outskirts of Virginia with around thirty of my fellow Iranians. A friend and I, after attending an Iranian political meeting, made our way to this kabobi, and got there just in time for the kickoff. I remember most of my fellow football fanatics that have been on the same rollercoaster ride with me in following Iranian football this past year, where present. However, what struck me was the number of new faces that dotted this small restaurant.

One can pretty much judge the importance of an Iranian game when beautiful Iranian ladies are also there in attendance. However, when I entered the building, I entered another realm, for now my sole concentration was on the game. I took my seat, said a prayer to myself, and watched the opening kickoff.

Being the ultimate Iranian football fan, and having followed it passionately from the personal journey that began in 1997, I knew not to be overconfident, but this time, after watching Iran and Germany in a friendly game just four days prior, where Iran showed to the one hundred thousand plus fans attending in Tehran's Azadi Stadium, and demonstrated to the world that Iranian football belongs to the top class of world football.

Hence, I thought Qatar would be easy to handle, and we had dismantled the Qatari team months back 3-1 in Iran. Yet in the back of my head, I also knew to expect the unexpected, especially when Iran plays Arab nations. We all know Qatar played a role in our 1997 journey when it beat us in Doha and forced Iran to go through that extra qualification route through Australia, which in itself was another magical moment for Iranian football.

I also remember it was Bahrain, another Arab football minnow who had kicked us out of the 2002 World Cup and instead Saudi Arabia went to the greatest sporting event mankind stages every four years. Thus, I had been conditioned to Iran's underachieving in football and falling apart at moments when it was all for no thing.

Minute 9. A great pass from what Europeans have pegged, "Asia's Maradona", Ali Karimi to Bayern Munich sensation Vahid Hashemian, who being the ultimate professional player, scores a brilliant goal and makes it look easy. One nothing to Iran, I was now somewhat at ease, for Iran was doing what it was supposed to, beating an opponent not in the same class as Iran.

But this day was not to be what I had hoped and expected of. Iran is playing awful, the players look drained, they are soaking wet from the humidity and heat of Qatar, they are playing lethargic, the passes are not connecting, and Qatar is attacking. And then goal, goal for Qatar in the 18th minute, the score is now 1-1, and the way Iran is playing, flashbacks of 2001 come into mind, where Bahrain used 'grass-rolling' tactics of faking injuries to kill time, bad referee calls, phantom offside calls, where taking place once more.

Time was ticking away and Iran was attacking, albeit it looked tactic less, and moment after moment, either bad passing, too much dribbling, or shots off target were keeping Iran from taking the lead. The halftime whistle blows and Iran is forty-five minutes away from elimination of the 2006 World Cup to be held in Germany.

During halftime, fellow football fanatics and I spoke about the horrors of the game we were witnessing and how once again it seemed Iran was 'chocking' and beating itself. In a game where Iran needed to win to advance to the final round of Asian Qualifying, it looked to be heading for a draw that would ultimately have Jordan qualify to the final round. We were all in shock, as this team that had showcased to the world what Iranian football is all about against Germany, was now withering away to an opponent not worthy to be mentioned in the same breath as Iran.

But we all still had hope, for we knew what Iran was capable of.

The second half, we all witnessed an Iran attacking like there was no tomorrow, and it seemed that we would crack open the goal and get once step closer to Germany. But alas, shot after shot, attempt after attempt, and waves of attack after another were all bearing no goal. Then it happened, in the 75hth minute, Iran scores an own goal, Qatar is up 2-1 and now Iran would have to score 2 goals in a span of 10 minutes to keep its hopes alive and the hopes of the whole Iranian nation alive.

After that goal, I did what I've never done before, I gave up on the Iranian football team, I left the restaurant and went outside to breath, I was in shock, and don't remember most of the emotions I went through, but water filled my eyes and drowned my soul. A dagger it felt had plunged deep into my heart and ripped my spirit out. I walked around dazed outside for a few minutes, and then with some other Iranians who had exited began to chat and express our anguish.

Then I hear a roar coming from the inside, Iran had tied the game up 3 minutes later (78th minute), through the brilliance of Kaabi to Borhani. It seemed Coach Branco Ivancovich had made a substitution and had brought in the young, Pas FC striker, Arash Borhani, and he had no sooner stepped onto the field that he punished the Qatari defense. Now, a rejuvenated Iran had 10 minutes to score the go ahead goal.

I went back into the restaurant, and every Iranian was on his/her feet, not able to sit down. Another substitution, young sensation, Iman Mobali was brought in. Iran attacked in such powerful waves, that it was a miracle Qatar was able to stand this Iranian blitzkrieg. But alas, time was now becoming Iran's death, as the minutes closed in, so to it seemed Iran's dreams.

In the 85th minute, Khodadad Azizi was brought in-a player that had been truly god's gift to the Iranian nation in 1997 when he scored the goal that took Iran to the 1998 World Cup, graced the field once more with his presence. Immediately, when I saw him enter the field, and watched him smile and roar at the players words of direction and instruction, I felt an ease that with barely no time remaining, Azizi would once again raise Iran out of the ashes. Indeed it seemed that would happen when a minute later, Khodadad scored what seemed to be a goal, but was ruled offside.

The minutes ticked down, then it happened, in the 89th minute, Azizi receives a pass makes a move to his right, then delicately with a touch only few players can do, passes to Hamburg star, Mehdi Mahdavikia to the right who made a run as a wing, Mehdi then gracefully hits a cross to the incoming Hashemian, and like in slow motion, Vahid taps the ball into the net, GOOO OOOOO OOOOO OOOOO OOOOO OOOOO AAAAA AAAA AAAAA LLLLL LLLLL LLLL LLLL!!!!!

Iran had done the impossible; they had come from two goals down to take the lead with less then a minute remaining. Darya Kabob was in ecstasy; everyone hugging each other, slaps of high fives everywhere, joy resonated at every corner. One has to be in that atmosphere to truly feel what I and others did that day, for words do not do it justice.

It seemed like deja-vu for me, as eight years ago my father and I had alongside thousands of Iranians in a pub had been witness to the Iranian miracle in Melbourne. Now in a different state and atmosphere and circumstance, I had witnessed another seemingly impossible comeback. The roller coaster of emotions I went through that day ended with sheer elation, and on that day, a smile was re-born, that I have yet gotten rid of.

This smile represents the hope, joy and rejuvenation that all of us Iranians outside and inside of our homeland needed, and again can be a springboard for other great things to come as 1997 too had shown to the world and Iranians what one can achieve. This never-say-die attitude of our Iranian football team, is a microcosm of what has been in Iran's culture and history for thousands of years-the will of our people to survive through the horrible times and come out of it victorious, was expressed through our Team Melli that day. I could almost envision the millions of true smiles form the souls reborn that day from every corner of the earth.

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