Iran’s coach and players put their stunning World Cup turnaround on Friday down to winning their own mental battles, amid growing public pressure on them to make a stand over a deadly crackdown on protests against their country’s clerical rulers.
Iran were headed for a goalless draw against Wales in Al Rayyan on Friday but scored twice deep in stoppage time to seal a last-gasp victory and keep alive their hopes of reaching the World Cup second round for the first time ever.
The preparations of Team Melli, a huge source of national pride, have been disrupted by a crisis back home following the death in police custody of a 22-year-old Kurdish-Iranian woman in September. Her death sparked protests that have grown to represent the boldest challenge to the legitimacy of Iran’s clerical elite since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
“We talk about the players, their goals. I don’t have words to congratulate my players, they were brilliant,” coach Carlos Queiroz told a news conference.
“We played with amazing, amazing character, which is the profile of our team usually. We always play with a sense of unity, cohesion, always. Today we made it very clear football is a game of different moments.”
Iran were thrashed 6-2 in their opening Group B match against England on Monday, after which Queiroz vented fury over what he called harassment and political pressure on his team, who have faced criticism at home for not speaking out strongly over the deaths of protesters.
Many Iranians had hoped the team would use their high profile and the World Cup as a platform to show their solidarity. On Monday, they declined to sing their national anthem in an apparent show of support, but on Friday, they sang quietly as it was played at the Ahmad bin Ali Stadium, where boos and jeers were heard from Iranian supporters..
Queiroz said the controversy plaguing his team meant their first match against England was already a write-off and his team’s pride was “bleeding”.
“England, Wales, United States, they came to this World Cup with three games. Unfortunately we lost opportunity to play the first game. We only have two.”
“We have to take these opportunities. It’s still open. What was important today is to keep our hopes open.”
Iran’s win makes for nail-biting final group B matches on Monday, with Wales facing England and Iran against the United States, where Queiroz said they could regain credibility and show football was “in our souls and minds”.
“Our preparation starts with a good rest today, refreshed minds and put all the complementary and garbage things outside our mind and focus on our goal,” he said.
“What we want to do is give this gift to Iranian fans, it’s a gift, this was a gift to them – north, south, east, west – a gift to all of them.”
Iran’s performance on Friday was a transformation, with Team Melli leading a second-half onslaught against Wales in hunt of the goal that would rescue a World Cup campaign that had looked to have flatlined.
In the dying moments of stoppage time, with the match goalless, Roozbeh Cheshmi unleashed a thumping drive to take the lead before Ramin Rezaeian added another soon after, with an army of Iranian fans erupting in celebration.
Cheshmi said the win was because of the players’ solidarity and them being ready mentally after coming under unacceptable and unfair pressure.
“They were judged abruptly and received non-football pressure,” he said. “I scored the goal that is true, but the team did the work.”
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