831 players, 32 teams and three matches per day (four, on a few occasions) – following the football World Cup can get a little overwhelming. For the next month, The Indian Express will cut through the clutter and handpick the biggest storyline of the day every morning
England vs Iran (Group B)
6.30 pm IST, Khalifa International Stadium, Doha
Protesting gender apartheid, Iran’s women’s basketball team removed their hijabs and unveiled a picture on Instagram on Sunday. It was a show of support in the aftermath of the anti-government protests that have gripped the country following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who was arrested by the regime’s morality police for not wearing a hijab. The BBC reported an estimate of over 15,000 arrests, and over 300 deaths, in the protests.
Sports, and football, in particular, have been a big source of support for the protesters in recent months. Iran’s water polo and volleyball teams refused to sing their national anthem, their beach soccer team led the way, with player Saeed Piramoon even mimicking cutting his hair after scoring a goal.
First it was individual athletes, like Parmida Ghasemi and Elnaz Rekabi.
— IranHumanRights.org (@ICHRI) November 20, 2022
The men’s national football team joined soon. They picked up a confidence-boosting 1-1 draw with Senegal in Vienna this month, but the atmosphere was muted, with a host of Iranian fans, who were not allowed to enter by Iranian authorities, making their voices heard from the perimeter over megaphones and loudspeakers. At the start, the players came out dugout wearing black jackets to cover their national team logos during the national anthem in support of the women of Iran.
Iranian football legend Ali Karimi also voiced his support on social media, and even the team’s star man, Sardar Azmoun, put out a series of social posts in support.
تیم ملی ایرانِ با شرف
— ali karimi (@alikarimi_ak8) November 6, 2022
Against this backdrop, Iran arrive in Qatar with the mouthwatering prospect of scoring additional political points. Their group contains long-standing geopolitical rivals USA and England, and they face the latter in the group’s opener on Monday. The team looks solid after rehiring former Real Madrid coach Carlos Queiroz, and have the talent to cause an upset, but the protests may cause an unwelcome distraction.
Team Melli’s captain Alireza Jahanbakhsh, while addressing the media in Qatar, acknowledged the scrutiny on his side ahead of the encounter. Enraged by questions over how the protests affected their preparations, he accused members of the English media of playing “mental games” ahead of the clash.
“To be honest, I’m not sure if England wasn’t in our group you would have come up with this question, firstly. And secondly, we have been facing this already for a couple of weeks with all the English media – this was all the headlines as we get closer to the World Cup, whatever the reason is,” he said, per The Guardian.
There are also doubts about whether the team will celebrate goals or sing the national anthem in Qatar. Before the start of the tournament, Queiroz had mentioned that players will be allowed to support protesters if they wish.
Defensive structure and discipline
How much will all this distract Iran with regard to the task they have on hand remains to be seen.
Queiroz’s philosophy, built around robust defensive shape, discipline, and hard work off the ball, bodes well with the tools at his disposal. They pose a significant threat on the counterattack, and even though talisman Azmoun, dubbed the ‘Iranian Messi’, faces a test against time to be fit for the opening match, FC Porto’s Mehdi Taremi represents plenty of goal threat.
— FreeIran2022 (@IranIran2022) September 28, 2022
Iran’s playing style is in complete contrast to Gareth Southgate’s England, a country famous for starting World Cup campaigns slowly. His side has not been emphatic in front of the goal recently and struggles to break down the kind of low blocks that Queiroz sets up in.
Even if England are the favourites to top the group, Iran can certainly pip Wales and the US for the second spot. They’ve got the tools to cause an upset against the favourites on Monday, but the questions over the unpredictability of the occasion remain unanswered. Will the team turn up in a distracted mindset and fail to make an impact? And if they do, how will it be received by fans at home, or by the travelling support, who could use the situation to make their protests heard the world over?
Other fixtures of the day:
Senegal vs Netherlands, 9.30 pm, Al Thumama Stadium
African hopes rest on Senegal, who are without talisman Sadio Mane. The team will need to be in top form against group favourites the Netherlands, a team with a blend of youth and experience under the astute tutelage of Louis Van Gaal.
USA vs Wales, 12.30 am (Tuesday), Al-Rayyan Stadium
With momentum on their side after ensuring their first World Cup qualification in 64 years, Wales are one of the dark horses in the tournament. If they are to live up to that hype, three points are a must against an indifferent US team.