AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MORE11 theater productions to see in Southern California this week, Dec. 27-Jan. 2In the 1998 cup, more than just sportsmanship was at stake when the American players faced the national team of Iran. As soon as the whistle ended the game, thousands of Iranians poured into the streets to celebrate their team’s victory. It was also a victory for 45 million Iranians. As the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the hard-line spiritual leader of the country stated, the players had made the nation happy. For the Iranians, the game symbolized a triumph in the political rivalry with the U.S. It was a way of paying back the “Great Satan” for the American support of the Shah and of Iraq during the war of 1980-1988. Yet, the game was also a spur for the Clinton administration and the Iranian government to resume diplomatic relations. The game between Iran and the U.S. was insignificant in determining who would eventually win the World Cup. Neither team had a chance. The usual contenders were Germany, Italy, England, France, Argentina and Brazil. However, small countries feel that they have won the cup if they manage to win a single game against one of these major teams. Thus, when North Korean players defeated Italy in 1966, they went home heroes while the Italian players were welcomed by irate fans throwing lemons at them. Just winning a game against one of these rich countries suggests to poor or small countries, lacking a winning tradition in soccer, that although they may not equal the major world powers – economically, politically or in other ways – they can compete in one area. And for a moment, they feel that they are better than the defeated country, not just in soccer, but in every other aspect of life. It’s not true, obviously, but soccer fever is very strong because it is the world sport, something Americans can only understand if they put the popularity of American football, baseball, basketball and hockey together. And victory on the soccer field boosts the national ego. Wouldn’t it be great if all the world’s problems could be decided on the soccer field? Domenico Maceri teaches foreign languages at Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria.160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set! “Si, señor. It’s war” read the headline in an English newspaper, a few days before the national teams of England and Argentina met in their semifinal soccer game during the World Cup in Mexico in 1986. The headline was an exaggeration, of course. It was just a game. Yet, the Falklands war was fresh in everybody’s mind, and for the Argentine players, a soccer victory would help make up for their loss in the war. This year’s World Cup, held in Germany, is not a war, but there is plenty of nationalism at stake. The popularity of the game throughout the world is due in part to its simplicity, but also to the national fervor that a winning team creates. When France plays Germany or Italy plays England, sports may create a little competition, but history and ancient rivalries make that competition important. Fourteen years ago, when Holland defeated Germany in the European championship, delirious Dutch fans threw their bicycles in the air and shouted that they had got their “bikes back,” a reference to World War II, when the Nazis confiscated all the bicycles in Holland. And when England beat Germany in 1966 to win the World Cup, many English fans saw a repeat of World War II. The fans’ celebrations suggested that much.