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Rafters shook, tears flowed, and throats burned raw at Doha’s Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium on Friday afternoon, as Iran pulled off one of the shocks of the Qatar 2022 World Cup by defeating Wales with two stoppage time goals in a riveting game that will echo down the ages.
Iran took the lead when substitute Rouzbeh Cheshmi struck a brilliant curling shot into the top corner from 25 yards. As Wales pushed forward in search of an equalizer, Iran countered in the 11th minute of stoppage time and Ramin Rezaeian sealed the 2-0 win with a neat finish. Cheshmi, awarded player of the match, later said the win was “due to the help of God and the work of the whole team.”
The victory keeps Iran’s hopes of qualifying for the tournament’s knockout stages alive before their final Group B game against Team USA on Tuesday—and it’s remarkable given the grim political backdrop that their players have had to contend with. The team’s stance on the mass protests at home over the death in police custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini for allegedly wearing a headscarf incorrectly, has proven unnervingly divisive.
The team’s decision not to sing the national anthem before their 6-2 defeat to England on Sunday was equally heralded and condemned by their compatriots, and afterwards Iran coach Carlos Queiroz talked of the pressure his young team was under as certain factions wanted to “kill them.” In an emotional diatribe, he urged supporters who wouldn’t back the team to “stay away.” But the squad was all caught up in celebration following their victory against Wales, as they repeatedly hoisted the 69-year-old high into the air in giddy celebration near the center circle.
“They deserved the win,” said Wales manager Rob Page. “We weren’t in the game at all.”
Before facing Wales the Iranian team did sing their national anthem, albeit timidly, which some observers attributed to the arrest the previous day of Voria Ghafouri, a former national team player, who has been outspoken in his criticism of the government, on charges of spreading propaganda. Many took Ghafouri’s detention as a threat to the team to fall in line.
Whatever the truth, Iran appeared transformed since their rout by England. They began in a high tempo style, harrying out of possession, dangerous from dead ball situations, and launching lightning counter attacks. Iran had a slick team goal narrowly disallowed for offside in the first half and hit the post twice in the second. Then Wales goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey received a red card for felling Iran striker Mehdi Taremi as he was bearing down on goal. Already in the ascendancy, Iran smelt blood following his dismissal.
“We played with a sense of unity, cohesion, and after the first game got back to our roots,” Queiroz told reporters after the game. “This was a chance to stop the bleeding and get back to credibility.”
Iran’s supporters are arguably the noisiest in Qatar yet divisions were stark. Around half of the traveling fans who arrived are affiliated with (and thus receiving tickets through) the Iranian Football Federation—and so are typically more loyal to the regime. Then there were thousands of supporters from the vibrant Iranian diaspora, many of whom could be seen wearing T-shirts protesting the death of Amini.
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Ahead of the match, regime backers were seen harassing those who were protesting the government. Shouting matches between fans chanting “Woman, Life, Liberty,” the clarion call of the demonstrations in Iran, and the “Islamic Republic!” rang out. Stadium officials also blocked Iranians from bringing pre-Islamic Revolutionary flags into the game.
“Iranian people are fighting for their lives, fighting for freedom,” says Thomas Nabi, 76, wearing a shirt that read “Free Iran.” Nabi was born in Iran but moved to the U.S. over three decades ago and now lives in Virginia. “All the young people here are against the regime.”
The debate over the protests will continue. But in terms of soccer, Group B looks incredibly tight. Iran memorably put the U.S out of the 1998 World Cup with a 2-1 thrashing.
“Everything is open in the group,” Quieroz told reporters afterwards. “What is important is that we have our goals and dreams in our hands.”