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Iran leader's love of soccer worries World Cup host

A visit by Ahmadinejad would trouble Germany

BERLIN -- German security forces are ready to deal with hooligans, right-wing protesters, and even suicide bombers.

But the possibility of Iran's president making a surprise appearance at next month's World Cup soccer championship is giving the country's leadership a collective case of angst.

The prospect of such a visit started to emerge last month after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad -- the world's best-known Holocaust-denier, despiser of Israel, and alleged wannabe wielder of nuclear arms -- expressed his passionate love for soccer. Iran's national team is one of 32 that have qualified for the championship, and it will play its first game at Nuremberg.

Suddenly, it seems possible that Ahmadinejad and his entourage might show up to cheer Iranian players in a city where Adolf Hitler set the stage for the Holocaust with massive Nazi rallies and passage of the Nuremberg laws, which stripped citizenship from German Jews.

The Iranian Embassy in Germany did not return phone calls seeking comment on whether Ahmadinejad plans to attend the Cup, and no Iranian official has publicly suggested that he might come. Still, the hint of such a visit has set off frenzied debate and claimed front-page headlines.

Some German leaders and editorialists have demanded that the government ban the Iranian leader. But Chancellor Angela Merkel and her ministers so far have taken the position that Ahmadinejad cannot be turned away if he arrives with his country's official sports delegation, even though his presence would surely trigger international outrage and protests from Israel.

``He would be allowed," said Interior Ministry spokesman Christian Guenther Sachs. ``Since he is head of state with a team in the World Cup, we would not be in a position to prevent him from coming."

That's a far cry from saying Ahmadinejad is welcome.

``Everyone is welcome to the World Cup except one person: Iran's president," Germany's Bild newspaper said in a commentary last week. ``As long as the madman of Tehran denies the Holocaust, continues work on the nuclear bomb, and supports terrorism, he should stay at home. . . . [T]he World Cup must not be poisoned by a political fanatic."

Some of Ahmadinejad's more inflammatory recent utterances violate German law, where it is a crime, punishable with stiff prison terms, to assert that the genocide of 6 million Jews never occurred or has been exaggerated.

Ahmadinejad, like many in the Islamic world, is adamant that the Holocaust never happened but is the result of lies spread by Jews and the United States. A few months ago he publicly derided ``the myth they call the massacre of the Jews."

In case there was any misunderstanding, he added: ``Some European countries insist on saying that during World War II, Hitler burned millions of Jews and put them in concentration camps. We don't accept this claim."

Ahmadinejad has also expressed hope that Israel soon will be ``wiped off the map."

Some of Ahmadinejad's most controversial comments came during his trip this month to Indonesia, underscoring concern about what might occur if he were to visit Germany.

The month-long World Cup, which will feature 64 games in 12 German cities, offers Germany a rare chance to shine on the world stage. Germans also fervently hope that a successful World Cup will help ease memories of the 1972 Munich Olympics, which saw the murder of 11 Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists.

The motto for the World Cup, which starts June 9, is: ``A Time to Make Friends."

The appearance of Ahmadinejad at the games could be an enormous embarrassment for Germany and could hurt the country's fine-tuned relations with the Islamic world if Ahmadinejad is not accorded full respect as a head of state. It also could upset the United States, which is seeking tough measures to dissuade Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Germany is among the lead nations in the touchy nuclear negotiations with the Islamic state, which have recently stalled.

Because of their nation's Nazi history, German officials would be more or less morally obliged to scold Ahmadinejad for his views on the Holocaust if he does come. ``What he has said is totally unacceptable to Germans, and we would probably need to offer him a history lesson," said Sachs, the interior ministry official.

But Germany would plainly prefer not to have to ruffle a leader who sits on some of the world's richest oil and natural gas fields -- deposits that may prove vital to Europe's energy future. There's talk of building pipelines from Iran to Europe. Moreover, Iran is an important market for Germany, which sells some $5.6 billion worth of automobiles, electronics, and other goods to the country. So, very few German leaders want to forbid Ahmadinejad from coming before he even announces any plans for a soccer jaunt.

``He is an unpleasant character, but he has not been convicted by international institutions or courts," Sebastian Edathy, a member of Parliament for the center-left Social Democratic Party, last week told Deutsche Welle, Germany's international radio broadcaster. ``Even though we don't want to see him and would prefer he stay at home, he can come."

In April, Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican, introduced a resolution in the Senate calling upon the international soccer federation to ban the Iranian team from competing for the Cup.

Jewish organizations are aghast at the prospect of an Ahmadinejad visit.

``He isn't welcome," said Stephan J. Kramer of the Central Council of Jews in Germany. ``At least not until he retracts his comments" about the Holocaust and Israel.

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