Iran offer powerful show of defiance on day of jeers, tears and joy

You cannot confiscate a voice. Iran’s was heard powerfully on an emotional afternoon on the outskirts of Doha that ended with tears in the stands, tears on the pitch and Wales supporters applauding those responsible for likely ending a World Cup journey 64 years in the making.

There were tears at the start too, and it was initially impossible to concentrate on a must-win game for both teams after seeing Iranian women and men left distraught by their national anthem. Before Monday’s game against England the Iran players had stayed silent during the anthem, delivering a potent protest with potentially far greater consequences than a possible yellow card for an armband. Here some stayed silent again, a few sang and the majority mumbled their way through; a choir of the damned if they do, damned if they don’t.

Around them, however, the sound was unmistakable and intensely moving. Boos and whistles rained down from Iran supporters sending their message to the government of the Islamic republic.

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One fan held aloft an Iran football shirt with ‘Mahsa Amini – 22’ on the back, the name and age of the woman whose death in police custody sparked the mass protest movement in the country. The fan had blood-stained tears drawn on to her face and was soon confronted by stadium security, who confiscated the shirt.

Qatar’s orders, or Fifa’s? Every flag brought to the perimeter of the stadium was inspected by security before being allowed inside. Any that carried messages of support for the protest movement were confiscated. An American-Iranian fan claimed her flag had been taken for having the word “women” on it.

There were sinister scenes outside the stadium where women giving interviews to foreign media about the protests were harassed by a small group of male pro-government fans. Some filmed the women on their phones and chanted “The Islamic Republic of Iran”. They also shouted insults at anyone displaying the protest slogan “Women, Life, Freedom”.

What was going through the mind of Iran’s players as they lined up to perform on a World Cup stage to the sound of boos and whistles, not only seeking to redress the 6-2 humiliation against England as part of their day job but suddenly expected to form a sporting protest movement, complete with answers, to a repressive regime prepared to shoot its people?

They have been threatened with dire retribution for Monday’s silence by politicians back home. On the eve of the Wales game they heard one of the most famous footballers in Iran, Voria Ghafouri, had been arrested by security forces who accused him of spreading propaganda against the regime. One group of fans wore hats with Ghafouri’s name. It is hardly surprising that Carlos Queiroz, Iran’s head coach, snapped at a BBC journalist who asked on the eve of this game whether the striker Mehdi Taremi had a message for those who have taken to the streets.

Iran supporters protest during the match against Wales.
Iran supporters protest during the match against Wales. Photograph: Giuseppe Cacace/AFP/Getty Images

Iran’s footballers answered with a powerful show of defiance of their own. A richly deserved win over Robert Page’s subdued team, with Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey and Joe Allen showing their age and rustiness at the worst possible moment, was one of supreme character and consummate professionalism given the circumstances.

Sardar Azmoun, Iran’s biggest attacking hope, started for the first time since injuring a calf in October. The Bayer Leverkusen forward ran himself into the ground while spreading panic throughout the Wales defence, although his lack of sharpness told when passing to an offside Ali Gholizadeh with the goal at his mercy. He also struck a post when clean through before hobbling off to a standing ovation in the 68th minute after several visits from the physio.

Iran had to call on the reserve goalkeeper Hossein Hosseini with their first choice, Ali Beiranvand, sidelined by concussion protocols. Hosseini brought authority to a defence that toiled against English crosses but dominated a Wales attack featuring the towering Keiffer Moore.

Both Iran goals were taken superbly after the deserved dismissal of Wayne Hennessey for evoking the World Cup spirit of Harald Schumacher and clattering into Taremi. Taremi’s message to the people of Iran was that their football team would give everything to remain in the World Cup. Queiroz was not intending to introduce Roozbeh Cheshmi until Ahmad Noorollahi’s injury prompted the former Manchester United coach to scan the options and order the defensive midfielder to strip off. The substitute, capitalising on Allen’s poor clearance, swept a superb finish into the bottom corner to prompt a mass pitch-invasion from the Iran bench.

Ramin Rezaeian capped an outstanding display at right-back with a delicate dink over Danny Ward and Ben Davies to seal victory, prompting Azmoun to throttle Queiroz during the joyous outpouring. A member of Queiroz’s backroom team could not contain the tears afterwards, wiping his face with his shirt as Iran’s players embarked on a richly deserved lap of honour that drew warm, sporting applause from Wales supporters baking in the early afternoon sun.

As darkness fell on Doha, the stadium was illuminated in Iran colours. “This game was a gift to Iranian fans north, south, east and west,” Queiroz said. “This was a gift to all of them.” Their fans were united in unquestioned support of a team to be proud of. Away from the game, sadly, it is a very different matter.