When Gianni Infantino last week urged football and politics to part ways once this World Cup begins, he must, presumably, have forgotten not only about FIFA’s choice of host but also about the involvement of Iran.
Indeed, it tells you all you need to know about the list of political controversies following England’s first Group B opponents into this tournament, that a meeting with the so-called Great Satan, the US, lands a fair way down the page.
First and foremost, there is the situation at home, where an oppressive regime is facing up, in quite brutal fashion, to its most significant challenge since the 1979 Islamic Revolution amid widespread demonstrations sparked by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in police custody in September. Amini had been arrested for allegedly breaking hijab laws, and hundreds of people have since died in the resulting protests, with thousands more detained. This week, Iran issued its first formal death sentence in relation to the unrest.
Then there is the situation abroad, where Western intelligence believes deadly Iranian drones have been used by Russia in its war on Ukraine, while the US last month accused Iran of being “directly engaged on the ground” in the conflict in Crimea.
The result is that FIFA have faced calls from multiple angles for an eleventh-hour expulsion: from the Ukrainian FA over Iran’s military alignment with the already-suspended Russia, and from a prominent group of Iranian sports personalities, who last month submitted a legal request calling for the country to be banned because its restrictions on women attending matches fall foul of FIFA’s charter.
“Iran’s brutality and belligerence towards its own people has reached a tipping point,” their joint letter read. “Neutrality from FIFA is not an option.” Iran’s players have shown collective support for the demonstrators, wearing black jackets to cover the national logo ahead of a friendly against Senegal last month — a game attended by Gareth Southgate — and during green-screen filming in Qatar this week, several were reluctant to perform badge-clutching celebrations.
Head coach Carlos Queiroz has said his players are “free to protest” during the tournament if they “conform with the World Cup regulations”, by which time some already had, most notably star forward Sardar Azmoun, who wrote a scathing (since deleted) Instagram post criticising the regime. Even so, the players know they are treading on eggshells, wary of the potential consequences of their actions.
That Queiroz is back at the helm after his first eight-year stint ended in 2019 is a source of controversy in itself, albeit of a far more trivial sort. Sacked midway through Colombia’s doomed qualification campaign, Queiroz took over as Egypt boss and failed to get them to Qatar either, before landing back in the Iranian hot seat once Dragan Skocic had done the hard part.
Skocic was sacked, reinstated, then sacked again, despite winning 15 of his 18 games in charge during a summer-long saga that split the Iran camp in half, with several key players loyal to the Croat but others keen on Queiroz’s return. One group even reportedly took their case to Iran’s sports minister, the equivalent of, say, Jack Grealish, Phil Foden and Jordan Henderson going to Michelle Donelan calling for Southgate’s head.
Amid the chaos, the evidence of Queiroz’s two previous World Cups suggest Iran will be a tough nut for England to crack. In Russia, they held Portugal and lost only narrowly to Spain, while four years earlier, in Brazil, Argentina needed a stoppage-time stunner from Lionel Messi to steal three points. A 1-0 win over Uruguay in September offers more recent form, though they were beaten 2-0 by Tunisia in a friendly yesterday.
There is talent in attack, in particular, with Bayer Leverkusen’s Azmoun joined by Mehdi Taremi, who has 13 goals this season for Porto, including five in five in the Champions League, plus two players with Premier League experience in Brentford’s Saman Ghoddos and former Brighton man Ali Jahanbakhsh, now at Feyenoord.
As ever at this World Cup, though, football is only part of the story.