'The first game was not football at all' – Taremi says Iran affected by political issues against England
Mehdi Taremi believes Iran's players struggled to focus on football during Monday's 6-2 defeat to England amid a crackdown on protests in their home country.
Taremi became the first Iran player to score a World Cup double at the Khalifa International Stadium last time out, but his efforts were not enough to deny England their biggest win in a World Cup or European Championships opener.
The game was played out in a highly charged atmosphere, with Iran's players refusing to sing their national anthem in an apparent display of solidarity with anti-government protesters in the country.
Human rights groups say more than 400 people have lost their lives amid the repression of protests in Iran, which began following the September death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman who died in police custody after being arrested for her refusal to wear the mandatory hijab.
Ahead of two crucial Group B fixtures against Wales and the United States, Taremi backed Iran to bring pride to their country with improved displays.
"In my opinion, the first game was not football at all. Because of so many issues that existed, football was the only one not in question," Taremi said at Thursday's pre-match press conference.
"I think our game starts now. We have two games and we have to play them to gain six points, so that we can make our people happy.
"That's why we are here. That's why all the players are here. That's what we want to do, to make the hearts of our people happy."
Head coach Carlos Queiroz also hinted Iran were affected by off-pitch issues last time out, as he asked media to let his squad focus on sporting matters.
"To make them [Iran's players] the only people that have to give you answers about human problems in the world, I don't think it's fair," Queiroz said.
"In my opinion, it's time to ask other countries and players what they think of other issues, and there are some big issues in the world.
"I feel my players are back to their roots, back to football. We had a great training session today with a lot of fun and skill.
"Let them play the game, play for their people, like England or the United States play for their people."
Wales captain Gareth Bale praised Iran's squad for their apparent display of support for those fighting for greater recognition of women's rights in their homeland.
"It must be difficult, the situation they find themselves in," Bale said. "I guess they know as footballers they have a big platform to create awareness, and they obviously have their beliefs.
"It's difficult to comment on, because I don't know a lot about it – I'm not a politician, I'm here to play football.
"They showed their togetherness, their strength as a national team, and I guess they're only trying to do it to make life better for everybody."