Iran preps for World Cup with unrest at home
Women's rights are back in focus as Iran's national soccer team prepares for the World Cup. They were never that far away.
Anti-government protests have engulfed the Islamic Republic following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who had been detained for allegedly wearing a mandatory headscarf too loosely.
Players on the men's team that will face England, Wales and the United States next month in Qatar have voiced their support for Iranian women's rights, despite some initial hesitancy.
Back in January, Iran made headlines not only by beating Iraq 1-0 to qualify for its third straight World Cup but also because 2,000 women were allowed to attend the game at Azadi Stadium in Tehran. Two months later, though, women were blocked from attending another match and reportedly were pepper-sprayed.
Women typically have been prohibited from attending men's games and other sports events in Iran since the 1979 Islamic revolution. A rights group has called on FIFA to expel Iran from the tournament in Qatar.
Security forces have violently suppressed recent protests.
Mehdi Taremi, the striker who scored in the victory over Iraq, wrote on Instagram of being "ashamed" to see videos from Iran of violence against women in the streets.
IRAN vs. USA
Iran beat the United States 21 at the 1998 World Cup in France in one of the more memorable games in tournament history — mainly because of the political backdrop.
The United States hasn't had formal diplomatic relations with Iran since 1980 following the seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran by Iranian students who held hostages for 444 days.
The day before the game in Lyon, the Iranian team received instructions to not shake hands with the American players. Instead, in a show of sportsmanship by both sides, the teams gathered before kickoff for a group photo.
Hamid Estili and Mehdi Mahdavikia scored before Brian McBride netted late for the United States in Iran's firstever World Cup victory. Neither team advanced out of the group. The teams played a friendly two years later at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California.
ON THE FIELD
The Iranians have a tough first game — against England on Nov. 21. They face Wales four days later before another showdown with the United States. That last group game — besides being politically charged — could be critical for both teams to advance.
Iran took note of some headlines in Britain after the draw was announced. One tabloid declared that England got a "dream World Cup draw" against Iran — and the United States.
"It is exactly the same feeling that I have — thank God that we are playing against England," Iran coach Carlos Queiroz said after being rehired in early September. "We like to play against the best teams in the world.
“England is one of the best teams in Europe — Iran one of the best teams in Asia, so that's why we're here, to play great games."
Iran has never advanced out of the first round. It has played in five previous World Cups, having debuted in 1978.
The 30-year-old Taremi is peaking at the right time. He scored twice for Porto in a 3-0 win over Bayer Leverkusen one week after setting up both goals in a 2-0 victory over the
German club in the Champions League.
Queiroz likely will be without forward Sardar Azmoun, who tore a calf muscle in early October while warming up for Leverkusen. The Bundesliga club said the 27-year-old Azmoun was expected to miss six to eight weeks. Azmoun has 41 goals in 65 appearances for Iran.
Alireza Beiranvand saved a penalty against Cristiano Ronaldo in a 1-1 draw with Portugal at the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
In recent friendlies, Iran beat Uruguay 1-0 and drew 11 with Senegal in Austria.
Queiroz was rehired as Iran coach in early September to replace Dragan Skocic. This will be Queiroz's fourth World Cup. He led Iran in 2014 and 2018 and coached his native Portugal in 2010. He became available after failing to lead Egypt to this year's tournament.
Queiroz has used a variety of formations and is defensively minded.
"We're going to play against some of the best players in the world," Queiroz said, "but we're going to be ready for them."