THE world waits with bated breath to see what Iran’s players do against England – and we’re not talking about the football.
There have been some forms of protest from members of Team Melli against their country’s murderous regime in the last two months.
GettyMehdi Taremi is arguably Iran’s danger man after his fine form for Porto[/caption]
But to do it at a World Cup, with the eyes of the globe watching, could seriously crank up the heat on the powers-that-be.
Civil unrest was unleashed in September when a 22-year-old woman, Mahsa Amini, died while in police custody for allegedly breaking rules on mandatory head-coverings.
In the ensuing mass demonstrations, led by females fed-up of their government’s hardline, Islamist rules, hundreds of protesters have been killed and more than 1500 detained.
Players have been under pressure from their people to speak up.
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Bayer Leverkusen striker Sardar Azmoun, an injury doubt for the opener, has done exactly that, bravely writing on Instagram: “I am not afraid of being shunned. Shame on you for so easily killing our people and long live the women of Iran.”
Not every squad-member has been so keen to follow suit.
You have to feel for those who have been put up to the media this week at the nation’s base at the Al-Rayyan Sports Club training facility, knowing one false move may have consequences.
That does not excuse captain Alireza Jahanbakhsh’s ridiculous suggestion on Thursday that questions over whether the squad have been affected by the horrifying scenes back home have only been asked as part of some sort of English plot to destabilise the Iranian team.
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The fact that the next day a French-speaking journalist offered the exact same query showed how misguided Jahanbakhsh was.
On Friday, former Nottingham Forest forward Karim Ansarifard did not want to be drawn on his government either but did say he welcomed women to attend the team’s matches in Qatar, which is not permitted in the Iranian league.
Goalkeeper Hossein Hosseini and midfielder Vahid Amiri offered on Saturday their condolences to family members who have lost loved ones in “recent events”.
Hosseini continued to say that “I just want to let them know we are here for them”.
Taremi the danger man
MEHDI TAREMI’S father wept on TV a few months ago, blaming himself that his son did not play in Europe sooner.
The striker, 30, only arrived on the continent three years ago after playing the majority of his career in Iran and Qatar.
Better late than never, though, as Taremi has been a sensation for Porto, banging in 62 goals in 115 games for the Portuguese giants.
Perhaps the most memorable was an overhead kick in the Champions League quarter-final against eventual winners Chelsea, which was later named goal of the tournament.
Taremi is not alone in the Iranian squad to score a bicycle kick against the Blues, with fellow forward Alireza Jahanbakhsh doing precisely that for Brighton on New Year’s Day 2020.
But England must be wary of his namesake Alireza Beiranvand, Team Melli’s No1 goalkeeper who is in the Guinness Book of World Records for his enormous throws.
That point may well have been made following the flak the team have been getting for not calling out their government more, being labelled “traitors” and playing for “the Islamic Republic Team” online.
On Sunday, defender Ehsan Hajisafi repeated Hosseni and Amiri’s message of sympathy for the bereaved but then went further.
He said: “We have to accept that the conditions in our country are not right and our people are not happy.
“We are here but it does not mean we should not be their voice or we should not respect them.
“We have to fight, perform the best we can, score goals and present the people of Iran with the results.”
What they do if they net against England will be fascinating, and probably the most likely form of any protest.
Many players in the Iranian league have refused to celebrate goals since the authorities’ brutal crackdown began – and the national team could follow suit.
While some of Team Melli refused to sing the national anthem – in which the final line expresses the hope that the Islamic Republic of Iran will survive forever – during September’s friendly with Senegal.
That exhibition also saw the team wear black puffer coats over their kit, with no flag or distinctive symbol, as they lined up.
As for the match itself, Iran are certainly no mugs who should not be underestimated.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s former No2 Carlos Queiroz has made them very hard to break down in his rigid 4-1-4-1 formation.
They can take confidence from their 1-1 draw with Portugal in Russia four years ago, as well as narrow defeats to Spain there and Argentina at Brazil 2014.
Queiroz holds the record for his 233 international games coached but has never faced England.
The Portuguese, 69, said: “To play against England is like magic. For me it’s special. For the players it’s like a dream of a life-time. Since they were kids they have been watching English football on TV.”
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Iran’s players have been keen to stress how together they are this week.
Whether there is any unified protest against their draconian government remains to be seen.