Rafter a shock, tears flowed and throats burned raw at Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium in Doha on Friday afternoon as Iran pulled away one of the shocks of Qatar 2022 World Cup beating Wales by two goals in stoppage time in a thrilling game that will reverberate through the ages.
Iran took the lead when substitute Roozbeh Cesmi curled a brilliant shot into the top corner from 25 yards. As Wales pushed forward in search of an equaliser, Iran countered in the 11th minute of added time and Ramin Rezaian sealed the 2-0 win with a neat finish. Cesmi, awarded man of the match, later said the victory was “thanks to God’s help and the work of the whole team”.
The win keeps Iran’s hopes of qualifying for the knockout stages of the tournament alive ahead of the final Group B match against Team USA on Tuesday – and that’s remarkable given the murky political backdrop their players have had to contend with. The team’s stance on mass protests at home because of the death in police custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini for allegedly wearing a headscarf incorrectly, turned out to be a nerve-wracking disagreement.
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The team’s decision not to sing national anthem before their 6-2 loss to England on Sunday was equally heralded and condemned by their countrymen, and afterwards Iran coach Carlos Queiroz spoke of the pressure his young team was under as certain factions wanted to “killed”. In an emotional diatribe, he urged supporters who would not support the team to “stay away”. But the entire team was in celebration after their win against Wales as they repeatedly hoisted the 69-year-old high into the air in giddy celebrations near the center circle.
“They deserved to win,” Wales manager Rob Page said. “We weren’t in the game at all.”
Before facing Wales, the Iran team sang their national anthem, albeit timidly, which some observers attributed to detained the previous day of Waria Ghafouri, a former national team player who has been outspoken in his criticism of the government, on charges of spreading propaganda. Many saw Ghafouri’s retention as a threat for the team to fall into line.
Whatever the truth, Iran looked transformed after their defeat by England. They started in high-tempo style, winning possession, dangerous from dead-ball situations and launching lightning counter-attacks. Iran had a clever team goal almost disallowed for offside in the first half and hit the post twice in the second. Wales goalkeeper Wayne Hennessy was then red-carded for bringing down Iran striker Mehdi Taremi as he pushed towards goal. Already on the rise, Iran smelled blood after his dismissal.
“We played with a sense of unity, togetherness and after the first game we went back to our roots,” Queiroz told reporters after the match. “This was a chance to stop the bleeding and get our confidence back.”
Iran’s supporters are perhaps the loudest in Qatar, but the divisions were wide. About half of the traveling fans who have arrived are affiliated with (and therefore get tickets through) the Iranian Football Federation – and so tend to be more loyal to the regime. Afterwards, there were thousands of supporters from the vibrant Iranian diaspora, many of whom could be seen wearing T-shirts protesting Amini’s death.
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Before the match there were supporters of the regime seen harassment those who protested against the government. Shouting matches between fans chanting “Woman, Life, Freedom,” a clarion call to the demonstrations in Iran, and “Islamic Republic!” rang out. Stadium officials also blocked Iranians from bringing pre-Islamic revolution-era flags into the game.
“The Iranian people are fighting for their lives, fighting for freedom,” said Thomas Nabi, 76, wearing a “Free Iran” T-shirt. Nabi was born in Iran but moved to the US more than three decades ago and now lives in Virginia. “All the young people here are against the regime.
The debate surrounding the protests will continue. But from a footballing point of view, Group B looks incredibly tight. Iran memorably knocked the USA out of the 1998 World Cup with a 2-1 victory.
“Everything is open in the group,” Quieros told reporters afterward. “The important thing is that we have our goals and dreams in our hands.”
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