The Iranian soccer team's coach Branko Ivankovic says President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has personally told him he plans to attend World Cup matches in Germany this month if his team qualifies for the knockout round.
"I respect Mr. Ahmadinejad as the elected president of the Iranian republic," Ivankovic, a Croatian, told The Jerusalem Post
on the sidelines of a warm-up match late Monday, when asked whether he was ashamed to coach the team of a nation whose president has incited against Israel and has denied the Holocaust. "He came to our last training in Iran and gave us support. He also said he would come to Germany if we make it to the second round."
Iranian officials had previously given contradictory accounts as to Ahmadinejad's World Cup soccer-spectating intentions.
The 32 participating teams - including past-winners such as Brazil, Italy, Argentina, France and England, as well as relative soccer minnows such as the US - but not Israel, which failed to qualify - will each play three group games starting June 9 to determine which 16 progress to the knockout stages starting June 24. The final will be held in Berlin on July 9.
Ivanovic spoke to the Post
after the Iranian national team trounced a local German team, VfB Friedrichshafen, 5-0 in its last warm-up match.
The Jewish community in Germany expressed outraged when Interior Minister Wolfgang Sch uble announced recently that Ahmadinedjad would be welcome to watch Iran's matches.
Israel's Ambassador, Shimon Stein, made an official request to the German government to bar Ahmadinejad, a serial Holocaust denier who has repeatedly called for Israel's destruction, from attending the World Cup.
Ivanovic said he did not want his team to become embroiled in the political debate over whether Germany should allow Ahmadinejad to attend.
"I have no special interest in Iranian politics and I don't discuss political issues with the players," said the coach. "We do not feel under any pressure because of the political situation. At this moment, we have no reason to think about politics."
Ivankovic said his team's self-confidence was buoyed by its win over VfB Friedrichshafen, a club from the Baden-Wuerttemberg state league, that came despite the absence of four key players.
Although goalkeeper Ebrahim Mirzapour, striker Ali Karimi, and midfielders Mehdi Mahdavikia and Fereydoun Zandi did not take part because of injuries, Ivankovic said he was confident all would be fit for the tournament. Karimi, the star of the Iranian team and league-leading Bayern M nchen, sat on the bench for most of the game, listening to his i-pod.
The atmosphere in the small stadium was cheerful and relaxed. Surprisingly, about half of the estimated 5,000 spectators were Iranians, some of whom travelled quite far to support their team.
The Iranian squad is under continuous police protection, and police fear that neo-Nazis might turn out in solidarity with the Iranian president and clash with anti-Ahmadinejad demonstrators during the Iranian team's Group D games on June 11 (against Mexico), June 17 (against Portugal) and June 21 (against Angola). The Iranians see their first match against Mexico next Sunday as crucial to their chances of reaching the knockout phase of the tournament, saying the North Americans will be a tougher opponent than Portugal and Angola.
In Friedrichshafen on Monday, the game was peaceful. "We wouldn't have let extremists in anyway," said one of the 250 policemen deployed at the town's Zeppelin Stadium.
A fan identifying himself only as Shiva, who had come from Munich with a group of some 90 enthusiastic Iranian football fans, said: "We, the fans, are absolutely apolitical and so are the players." He added, however, that "Ahmadinedjad should not be allowed to attend the World Cup, as a punishment for what he said about Israel and the Holocaust."
Friedrichshafen is known as the home of one of aviation's most colorful pioneers - Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin - who founded the Zeppelin airship company. His first dirigible flew in 1900, and the company also constructed the ill-fated final ship - the Hindenburg - that crashed in 1937 in Lakehurst, New Jersey, finally putting an end to Zeppelin's dream of giant airships voyaging between far-flung continents.
A Zeppelin Museum, housed in a Bauhaus-style building on the lakeside promenade, features a cross-section segment of the 247-meter Hindenburg, complete with boarding gate, passengers' cabins and salons equipped with art deco furniture.
"We are delighted to welcome the Iranians here again," said Mayor Josef Buchelmeier, who attended Monday's match wearing a green and white Iran jersey. (All-but unnoticed, the Iranian team stayed in Friedrichshafen in 2004 while preparing for the Asia Cup. They reached the semifinals and promised to return if they qualified for this World Cup.)
"We too hope that they will repeat their success. We regard Iran as a sports team, and nobody should mix politics and sports," Buchelmeier said.
AP contributed to this report.