It really shouldn’t happen to a former Real Madrid manager and one-time assistant to Sir Alex Ferguson, but Carlos Queiroz laid down the cones for an Iran training session in an obscure Vienna suburb last Thursday afternoon, having played a role in setting up a diplomatic incident.
The session, for a team that beat Uruguay 1-0 in a World Cup warm-up the following night, appeared to bring joy to a 69-year-old who has been rehired to stop the rot in Iran’s national side – even if he is being paid just £50,000 for a four-month contract that expires after the World Cup. His six coaches have less than £30,000 between them.
The diplomatic role is more difficult as Iran is in the midst of a huge and escalating public outcry following the death in custody of a 22-year-old woman, Mahsa Amini, who was arrested by the state’s morality police for allegedly improperly wearing a hijab. and scarf. Soccer worries the Iranian state because the nation’s soccer players have a habit of speaking their minds.
After Amini’s death, Alireza Jahanbakhsh, captain of Queiroz’s national team, posted a photo of a young woman with her arms raised towards a flock of pigeons. Ehsan Hajsafi, who was also in the starting XI against Uruguay, published something similar. Both appear to have been forced to delete the posts, which mysteriously disappeared.
Against this backdrop, The Mail on Sunday arrived here last Wednesday to find that we were among several Western media organizations that had had our accreditation for the game withdrawn – at the behest of the Iranian state, according to multiple sources. The match was already to be played behind closed doors at the insistence of the Iranians, who were technically the hosts.
Our subsequent approach to Iran FC vice-president Mahdi Mohammadnabi at the team hotel revealed how afraid officials are to take any step that the state apparatus might reject. Mohammadnabi, a scrawny figure in a shabby coat and cheap training gear, said nothing to us or Persian-speaking colleagues, except to deny us access to Queiroz.
Iranians have protested after Mahsa Amini was arrested by the state’s morality police
Iran boss Carlos Queiroz was seen laying out markers for his team’s training session
The manager then emerged from a hotel dining area to say he would be speaking at the side of the training ground to the few reporters present. This appeared to be a test of whether there were enemies in Iran’s midst. Within 18 hours our accreditation was mysteriously restored. Threats to surrender cell phones never materialized.
Queiroz appears to have the power to act as de-facto independent foreign envoy for Iran and maintain credibility for its hapless FA. He is not afraid to speak out because he does not live in fear of the state like the FA officials do. He doesn’t have a family in Iran to worry about. The Iranian state also badly needs him, although Queiroz has yet to move towards commenting on the treatment of women like Amini.
Iran seems to have thought the protest would never follow them to St Polten, a sleepy town 50 miles west of Vienna where this surreal battle took place.
But discord dogged the place. About 150 supporters from each side who were admitted, reportedly as VIPs, included two men who held up a picture of Amini in the second half. They were immediately apprehended by Austrian police officers and frog-marched out of the stadium through a VIP lounge.
The Mail on Sunday’s press pass was restored so they could speak to Queiroz
Austrian police spokesman Raimund Schwaigerlehner told The Mail on Sunday yesterday that the protesters had left the stadium ‘voluntarily’. Once removed, they insisted they had every right to protest peacefully. It was an extraordinary scene to observe in a democratic European country. The Austrians, tied in knots by the Iranian state, also made the bizarre claim that any protest must be ‘registered with the competent authority’ up to 48 hours before it takes place. It was just two men with an A4-sized poster.
On the pitch, some sanity has been preserved after the implosion of the team under Croatian manager Dragan Skocic, Queiroz’s predecessor – which some players viewed with disdain. There were stories of training sessions that involved little more than a “bar challenge”. One source believed the Iranians were particularly keen to get the proven Queiroz back because of the politically charged nature of Group B. “The thought of losing both to the US and England is unthinkable for the Iranian state,” the source said.
Queiroz certainly hasn’t been working since he was reinstated just two months before the tournament. He hinted on Thursday that the team will still play friendlies in the week before taking on England. There has been talk of a friendly against Russia in Doha that week, although Tehran seems a more likely venue.
Queiroz insists Iran must compete at World Cup and are not ‘no-hopers’
The manager rejected Iran’s label as “no-hopers” in their group. ‘I don’t care what other people think. I care about us, said Queiroz. ‘I can’t control other people’s opinions. We have our strengths and qualities, but we have weaknesses like all teams. The time has come to talk on the pitch.’
The re-appointment of Queiroz has created a huge sudden sense of anticipation and a first ever step into the knockout stages is now expected on home soil. The impressive 1-0 win over a strong Uruguay side, in which Porto striker Mehdi Taremi scored, will raise expectations. Iran is a technically efficient team that presses hard and, on the basis of Friday night, can whip the ball around quickly. They are also ready for a game, as defender Hossein Kanaani, a big influence, proved by going nose to nose with Luis Suarez after a disagreement.
But the political controversy will haunt Iran and the world cannot be shut out in Doha, where protest groups are likely to gather. Queiroz will ask a series of questions.
One player who has given support is former Bayern Munich midfielder Ali Karimi
Some of the Iranian players who have found their voice – such as former Bayern Munich midfielder Ali Karimi, with 11.4 million Instagram followers – are now retired. But Zobeir Niknafs, who plays for Tehran side Esteghlal, shaved his head in an Instagram post in a vivid display of solidarity with the protests.
The core of Queiroz’s squad have also made it clear that they will not be silenced. No fewer than seven, including the stars of the win over Uruguay, have changed Twitter profile pictures to black markers, in their own gesture of support. When the team returns to St. Polten stadium for another friendly match behind closed doors, against Senegal, protests about Amini’s death are expected outside. Austrian police will be reluctant to make arrests in a nation where the right to protest is sacrosanct. That’s how it will be from now on. Iran, a side of great promise, will bring fireworks wherever they go.