Carlos Queiroz knew very well what he signed up for in September when he agreed to return to his previous role as coach of the Iran national team, three years after an initial eight-year stint in charge, on a $50,000 contract. three months of work culminating in the World Cup. Or at least thought so.
Qatar is included in a politically sensitive group along with the United States, England and Wales, Iran’s relations with the United States and the United Kingdom since 1979. Islamic revolutions have rarely been anything but hostile, with Queiroz expected to be both football coach and diplomat to ensure Iran’s World Cup campaign runs as smoothly as possible.
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But days after he returned to Iran, protests over the death of Mahsa Amini, who died in police custody after being arrested for improperly wearing a headscarf, began to spread across the country.
Almost two months later, the situation remains volatile. Women continue to protest the regime by cutting their hair and refusing to wear headscarves, while former and current Iranian soccer players join the protests with social media posts supporting demands for greater rights for women and society.
Outside Iran, Ukraine has called for Team Melli, the nickname for Iran’s national team, to be kicked out of the World Cup amid allegations that the country is supplying military equipment to Russia to support its invasion of Ukraine.
As the coach of the national team, Queiroz is a central figure in Iranian football, but the former Real Madrid coach and long-time assistant to Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United has chosen to avoid the topic that is now weighing on Iran. Asked during a training camp in Tehran last week about the protests and unrest in the country and suggestions that many in Iran do not want their team to become the face of the Islamic regime, Queiroz chose to avoid giving his opinion on the situation.
When ESPN spoke to Queiroz at the end of September during a training break in Vienna, Austria, ahead of friendlies against Uruguay and Senegal, he said: “Most people in Iran have a clear answer to this campaign. They want their national soccer team to participate. in 2022 in the world championship”.
Amini protests had already begun, and anxiety in the Iranian camp led to ESPN and other Western media outlets being banned from the Uruguay game in St Paulten before the turnaround on game day. Iran’s concerns about protests at the game proved well-founded, with Austrian police evicting supporters for displaying posters bearing Amini’s name.
Asked to comment on the situation in Iran, Queiroz said: “I have no thoughts.”
His position was clear. He talked about football and Iran’s prospects in Qatar, but everything else was off-limits. The 69-year-old defied the hierarchy of Iran’s football federation and even agreed to speak to ESPN, but it was supposed to be only about football.
The situation in Iran has worsened rather than eased since mid-September, but the World Cup is due to start in just over a week and Iran will play host to the tournament on November 21. will face England at the Khalifa Stadium before meeting England at the Football Stadium. United States at Al Thumama Stadium in the final Group B match on November 29. Queiroz’s opinion of the group is below.
ESPN: Iran have been written off as group underdogs despite being 20th in the FIFA world rankings, just below Wales (19) and USA (16), so does that give you extra motivation?
Queiroz: Never. I never think like that because I don’t care what other people think about us. We think about us. We have our strengths and characteristics, and of course we have some weaknesses, like all teams. Nobody is perfect and the right moment is the time to talk on the pitch.
Those feelings or comments are not readable. But at the end of the day, it will be important to perform well in the game, play good football and leave the result in God’s hands. We can do that.
Mark Ogden analyzes the USMNT’s World Cup draw, where they will face England, AND Iran and European qualifiers.
ESPN: Iran have never made it out of the World Cup group stage, so what are the expectations in Qatar?
Queiroz: I don’t feel bad that we feel that pressure to increase our responsibility, motivation and responsibilities. But as a group, our expectations to perform well are exactly the same as everyone else’s.
We want to move forward, we want to be better and we definitely have expectations to go to the second round of the World Cup. Nothing has changed. We are going to the third World Cup together with the same belief and the same desire to be there.
ESPN: The first game will be against England, one of the favorites for the World Cup. How strong are they?
Queiroz: I am happy to play in England, as in Iranian football we are happy to play Portugal or Spain. We are happy to play for the best teams in the world because this is our life. We work to be among the best teams in the world, among the best players.
So being near us is a moment of happiness. We work all our lives to participate in the World Cup. And when we get to the World Cup, we go there as minor players, but at the moment we are among the top 32 teams in the world, so let’s be happy about that.
ESPN: Having worked in England with Manchester United, you know the country and the team’s desperation to do well, but you’ve seen them fail many times.
Queiroz: England is the top team. There is no doubt that in international football over the last few years, that England has been growing with better preparation and a clear vision. This is clear with the results on the field.
But I am not saying that this team is better or that they are better players than those days of David Beckham and Paul Scholes. They are not at the time, but the difference now is that England are showing a clear direction and a vision of where all the players and the whole team need to go. So that creates a team that is much more consistent and able to compete.
But this World Cup is something different, because we have a completely new set up – short rest periods between games, a competition in November that is completely different to other World Cups, so we have players. Europe, which will come to Qatar with 15-20 games.
They have 65-70 games to play in the next World Cup, so let’s see what happens.
ESPN: The match against the USA is the last game of the group and could decide the qualification hopes of both teams. You coached in MLS with the New York/New Jersey MetroStars in the 1990s. How do you see Team USA and the nation progressing in soccer?
Queiroz: I see progress, football progress everywhere. Most people don’t see it, but professionals, we do. The US game is moving forward, it’s faster, faster thinking, quick decisions by players, so we need to know that.
This is the case with all countries, including the US, but they rise year after year and compare well with other continents. They now have connections with players in major countries and competitions. US soccer players are growing rapidly and are being compared to other countries in the world and other continents.
ESPN: Can Iran surprise people at this World Cup?
Queiroz: We expect great games, great matches, great performances in the World Cup. Iran, England, Wales, Spain, Portugal, USA – all should have only one goal – to create joy, happiness and pride for our supporters.