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Iran, even with 10, win gold

By Michael Battye

BANGKOK, Dec 19 (Reuters) - Iran, even with a player sent off late in the game, won the Asian Games soccer gold on Saturday, beating Kuwait 2-0 in a game played under extra security because of U.S.-led bombing raids on Iraq. (To see photos of the match CLICK HERE)

The outcome of the all-Middle East final, played on the first day of the holy Moslem fasting month of Ramadan, was never in doubt as Iran, with most of their World Cup squad on display, took control from the start.

China won the bronze when they beat Thailand 3-0 in a match 1,000 kms from Bangkok.

Kuwait's Czech coach Milan Macala fumed about the refereeing saying tough Iranian tackling resulted in a broken leg for one of his players in the incident that led to an Iranian being shown the red card.

The Iranians scored in only the seventh minute when left wingback Ali Karimi, a rising 21-year-old star who was playing in the Iranian third division only a few months ago, popped up unmarked at the right hand far post.

He nodded home a corner which Kuwaiti goalkeeper Khalid Al-Fahdli should have kept out.

Missing key goal scorer Jassem Al-Huwaidi with a thigh injury, Kuwait could not break the iron grip of the hard-working Iranian midfield quickly enough to trouble a defence missing kingpin Mohammed Khakpour.

Iran extended their lead in the 27th minute as Karim Bagheri of German second division side Arminia Bielefeld won yet another ball in midfield, charged through a static Kuwaiti defence and rounded Al-Fahdli before firing home from a narrow angle.

Four minutes later, it should have been all over as Bayern Munich striker Ali Daei, who scored eight goals in the tournament, put Ali Mousavi through, but poor ball control on a bumpy pitch gave Al-Fahdli enough time to block the eventual shot.

Karimi also went close in the 34th minute as Al-Fahdli again dithered over whether to come for a corner, but the Iranian defender's header was cleared off the line.

The Iranians eased off in the second half, but Kuwait still could not threaten Iranian goalkeeper Behzad Gholampour, who has looked the most fallible player in the new gold medallists lineup throughout the tournament.

Kuwait's 19-year-old Farj Laheeb, the tournament's top scorer, rarely got a touch of the ball and never a chance to add to his nine-goal tally.

Not even the sending off of Iran's Mehdi Madhavikia, a striker playing at wingback who has interested several European clubs, helped the Kuwaiti cause.

Madhavikia was sent off in the 78th minute after he raised his leg high in the air to make a running interception and felled Kuwait's Ahmad Al-Mutairi, who was carried off and did not return.

Coach Macala said Al-Mutairi had been taken to hospital with a broken leg and criticised poor refereeing by Thailand's Pirom Unprasert.

``We must have better referees at tournaments like this. I saw many hard fouls which went unpunished,'' he said.

``Iran has a strong team, physically strong, and the referee helped them,'' he said.

Macala blamed the absence of Al-Huwaidi for the lack of bite up front and the lack of incisive midfielder Hani Al-Saqer for the lack of penetration.

``That last cross, that last pass, was missing,'' he said.

``In the whole of the match we made very few chances. But congratulations to Iran. We played as well as we could and I'm very proud the Kuwait team won the silver medal.''

In reality, Kuwait played only as well as the vastly experienced Iranians allowed them.

``We were more focused,'' said Iranian coach Mansour Pourheidari. ``We had a plan and we didn't think about anything except the gold medal.''

Even after Madhavikia was sent off, the Kuwaitis managed to get into the Iranian penalty area only a few times and still could not find a move that would threaten Gholampour.

The Iranians, who never looked vulnerable after a stunning 4-2 defeat at the hands of tiny Oman in a second round group match, reclaimed a gold medal they last won in 1990 at the Beijing Games when they were just emerging from a decade of war against Iraq.

Then, they were underdogs.

On Saturday, they were red-hot favourites and never looked like anything else as their well-organised and skilful side bottled up the Kuwaitis.

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