Rafternoons shook, tears flowed and throats burned at the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium in Doha on Friday afternoon as Iran pulled off one of the clashes of the Qatar 2022 World Cup by beating the Wales with two stoppage time goals in a thrilling game that will echo. ages.
Iran took the lead when substitute Rouzbeh Cheshmi hit a brilliant curled shot into the top corner from 25 yards out. As Wales advanced in search of an equaliser, Iran replied in the 11th minute of stoppage time and Ramin Rezaeian sealed the 2-0 victory with a neat finish. Cheshmi, named Player of the Match, later said the victory was “due to God’s help and the hard work of the whole team”.
The win keeps Iran’s hopes alive of advancing to the tournament’s Round of 16 ahead of their final Group B game against Team USA on Tuesday – and it’s remarkable given the grim political backdrop their players have had to contend with face. The team’s stance on the mass protests at home following the death in police custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini for allegedly wearing a headscarf incorrectly has proven disconcerting.
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The team’s decision not to sing the national anthem ahead of their 6-2 loss to England on Sunday was also announced and condemned by their compatriots, and then Iranian coach Carlos Queiroz spoke of the pressure his young team while some factions wanted to “kill them.” In a moving rant, he urged fans who wouldn’t support the team to ‘stay away’. But the team were caught up in celebration following their win over Wales, as they repeatedly hoisted the 69-year-old into the air in a dizzying celebration near the center circle.
“They deserved the win,” said Wales manager Rob Page. “We weren’t in the game at all.”
Before facing Wales, the Iranian team sang their national anthem, albeit coyly, which some observers attributed to the arrest the day before of Voria Ghafouri, a former national team player, who openly criticized the government, accused of spreading propaganda. Many took Ghafouri’s detention as a threat to the team lining up.
Be that as it may, Iran has appeared transformed since its rout by England. They started in high-paced style, harassing out of possession, dangerous in dead-ball situations and launching lightning counterattacks. Iran had a brilliant team goal narrowly disallowed for offside in the first half and hit the post twice in the second. Then Welsh goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey was shown a red card for taking down Iran striker Mehdi Taremi as he headed for goal. Already in the ascendancy, Iran smelled of blood following his dismissal.
“We played with a sense of unity, cohesion and after the first game we went back to our roots,” Queiroz told reporters after the game. “It was a chance to stop the bleeding and regain credibility.”
Iran supporters are arguably the most vocal in Qatar, but divisions were strong. About half of the traveling fans who have arrived are affiliated with (and therefore receive tickets through) the Iranian Football Federation – and are therefore generally more loyal to the regime. Then there were thousands of supporters from Iran’s vibrant diaspora, many of whom wore T-shirts to protest Amini’s death.
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Prior to the match, regime supporters were seen harassing those protesting against the government. Matches of cries between supporters chanting “Woman, Life, Freedom”, the bugle of the demonstrations in Iran, and the “Islamic Republic! rang. Stadium officials also prevented the Iranians from introducing pre-Islamic revolutionary flags into the game.
“Iranians are fighting for their lives, fighting for freedom,” said Thomas Nabi, 76, wearing a shirt that read “Free Iran.” Nabi was born in Iran but moved to the United States more than three decades ago and now lives in Virginia. “All young people here are against the regime.”
The debate on the protests will continue. But in football terms, Group B looks incredibly tight. Iran memorably eliminated the United States from the 1998 World Cup with a 2-1 thrashing.
“Everything is open in the group,” Quieroz told reporters afterwards. “What’s important is that we have our goals and our dreams in our hands.”
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