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Apr 30, 2008

Galaxy eye potential date against Iran

CARSON, Calif. -- Los Angeles Galaxy officials have confirmed that the club is in negotiations to play a friendly match with the Iranian national team sometime in May.

Galaxy assistant general manager Tom Payne has been working on the arrangements. While they have not been finalized, Payne acknowledged that the two organizations have entered the "preliminary stages."

One important step was securing the assistance of the United States Soccer Federation, which must approve and formally invite any visiting team from another country. The Galaxy has the full cooperation of USSF president Sunil Gulati.

"We have been working with the Galaxy and the U.S. State Department on a possible match between the Galaxy and the national team of Iran," said Gulati. "While matters are not concluded, things are moving in the right direction."

The L.A. club has a bit of history with Iran. A thriving community of immigrants from that country has settled in the area, and many have contributed greatly to the soccer scene of Southern California. Iranian-American Afshin Ghotbi trained Pete Vagenas (longtime Galaxy midfielder) as a youngster in local club teams. Ghotbi also served as a Galaxy assistant coach in 2004 and 2005. Now Ghotbi coaches Persepolis, Iran's main club.

Cobi Jones, the current Galaxy assistant coach and longtime Galaxy midfielder, participated in the historic matches the U.S. national team played against Iran at the World Cup in 1998 (a 2-1 win for Iran) and an international friendly in Pasadena in 2002 (a 1-1 draw). Ali Daei, a legendary striker for Iran, also took part in both those games and now coaches the Iranian team.

Current Galaxy general manager Alexi Lalas was on the bench for the '98 match. Both the loss and his lack of playing time stung even years later, but he was also able to look at the larger context.

"It was still an incredible day -- all the pomp and circumstance leading up to it," said Lalas.

Iran's players presented the U.S. team with white flowers in a gift exchange at the start of the match, while the Americans offered U.S. pennants to their rivals. Two years later, in the exhibition played at the Rose Bowl, the U.S. players offered roses to the visitors as commemorative tokens.

"That was a very symbolic game," said Gulati of the World Cup match. "The result wasn't what we wanted, but it was a great show of sportsmanship by all fans and certainly both teams."

The game drew the notice of many outside observers with no direct connection to either country, because the problems and the issues in foreign relations between Iran and the U.S. were well known.

"There was so much attention because of the history and the subplot and the politics that I think the players really enjoyed just to get the game played," Lalas said, denying the game was infused with any particular animosity. "That was something that was concocted outside the two teams and that's usually the case when politics invades sports."

It could be that soccer is looking to turn the tables -- to make an impact on a scale outside the game itself.

"Soccer diplomacy," Gulati termed it.

However, Lalas was wary of assigning too much importance to any game.

"It's a little simplistic to think that if we can get along on the soccer field, why can't we get along in the political arena," said Lalas. He did point out that a game could be the catalyst to a crucial adjustment to people's perspectives.

"It's important to always see that at the end of the day, we can talk about culture and nations, but what we're really talking about is people,' said Lalas. "[In 1998], we had 11 American guys running against 11 Iranian guys and we were playing in the same game.

"It had nothing to do with weapons of mass destruction or terrorism or hostages or any of that other stuff. These were people and it's important for people to understand that these are men that have wives and families, just like we do. Sometimes that gets lost in the shuffle."

The Galaxy actually tried to work out a match with Iran's national team back in 2006, settling instead on a game played at UCLA between the Galaxy's reserve squad and a select team of former Iranian national team players. Since Lalas took part in the game, a 3-1 win for the Iranian side, he had an idea of the quality the Galaxy might face.

"There's some very good players who have come out of that country," Lalas said.

With David Beckham and Landon Donovan as cornerstones of the Los Angeles club, the Galaxy also have talent on display, setting up an interesting contest if a match does take place.

"I think it would be a wonderful event for the two countries and for the fans of the game in a bunch of different communities," Lalas said. "I would love to see this come about, but we still have got a long way to go."

The major hurdle is securing State Department approval of the visas needed by the visiting players.

The international relations facilitated by soccer may not be limited to matches in the U.S., however. Americans could be traveling abroad for more historic games, perhaps even in Iran itself.

"Separately, we have had previous discussions, though not in the last few months, with the Iran FA about playing against our national team in Tehran or the U.S., but have not taken the next steps, mostly because of a lack of available FIFA dates," said Gulati.

Since at one point he was the only American player in Italy's Serie A, Lalas understood the influence direct representation in the world's most popular sport could have.

"You're an ambassador dealing within a medium that's probably more powerful than even those in a traditional ambassadorship position," said Lalas. "We're over there playing soccer. There's a lot of attention and focus and that's a wonderful stage to be on. If you use it correctly, you can leave a wonderfully positive impression."

Since the Galaxy have a superstar like Beckham on the roster, the worldwide spotlight shines even more brightly on the club now. Whether or not the upcoming match with Iran is finalized, the organization is also planning a tour to the Middle East in the future, specifically within the next two years.

"I do see a tour in that area of the world as something that we not only want to do, but something that we have to do," said Lalas. "We're all looking for unique and creative ways to bring people together. Sports is always an attractive option."

Andrea Canales covers MLS and women's college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She also writes for soccer365.com and contributes to a blog, Sideline Views. She can be contacted at soccercanales@yahoo.com.

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