Iran’s World Cup team coach Carlos Queiroz has vented anger at players being dragged into a crisis in their home country, telling the team’s Iranian compatriots not to harass and politicise his team and to let them focus on their tournament campaign.
Speaking after his side’s 6-2 pummelling by England in their World Cup opener on Monday, Queiroz said his players, who have a high profile at home, had been criticised heavily and even threatened over issues that had nothing to do with football.
Iran’s “Team Melli” – the national team – have been in the spotlight in the run-up to the World Cup, with many Iranians seeking their public endorsement for continuing protests that have become the most sustained challenges to the legitimacy of Iran’s rulers since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
“To those who come to disturb the team with the issues that are not only about the football opinions, they’re not welcome because our boys, they’re just simple football boys,” Queiroz told a news conference.
“Let the kids play the game. Because this is what they’re looking for. They wanted to represent the country, to represent the people, as any other national team that are here. And all the national teams, there are issues at home.”
Some fans have accused the team of siding with Tehran’s crackdown against protesters. Activists say more than 400 people have been killed in the violence so far, including dozens of minors, which were sparked by the death two months ago of Mahsa Amini, 22, after her arrest under the country’s strict Islamic dress code.
Some Iran team fans in Qatar have also signalled support for the protesters back home by wearing T-shirts with the words: “Women, life, freedom”, echoing the popular chant of the movement that has arisen since Amini’s death.
The team’s captain, Ehsan Hajsafi, had on Sunday cautiously broke the team’s silence on the protests and said his squad supported and sympathised with their people.
But, in a show of solidarity with the protesters on Monday, the team declined to sing the Iranian national anthem before the match and celebrations of their two goals were muted, following similar moves by other Iranian sportsmen and women.
Jeers were also audible throughout the anthem, while some Iranian fans were seen holding signs professing their support for women’s rights.
The decision not to sing the national anthem was not the first time the Iranian team has shown symbolic support for the protesters. In late September, the team opted to wear black jackets to cover the country’s colours in their friendly against Senegal.
The Portuguese Queiroz, who led Iran to the 2018 World Cup, said he was proud of his players for the political pressure they had to deal with and urged England and upcoming Group B opponents Wales and the United States to rally behind them.
“You don’t know what the kids have been experiencing behind the scenes just because they want to play football,” he said.
“Of course, we have our opinions and we will express them in the right time. But I love the game and don’t want the players to do something that isn’t loyal to the game that is about the entertainment, joy and pride,” he said.
“They only have one dream, to play for the country, to play for the people and I am very proud of the way they stand up and keep fighting.”