AL RAYYAN, Qatar – Iran scored twice in the final moments of stoppage time to keep alive their hopes of reaching the World Cup knockout stages for the first time with a thrilling last-gasp victory over a stunned 10-man Wales on Friday.
Wales, who had goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey sent off late in the match, looked to have survived the Iranian onslaught in their Group B encounter at the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium, before substitute Roozbeh Cheshmi found the net and Ramin Rezaeian sealed the win with seconds left.
Iran had come out fighting in the second half and hit the post twice in a matter of seconds, with Sardar Azmoun’s shot rebounding to Ali Gholizadeh, whose follow-up cannoned off the upright and back to the waiting Azmoun, who headed tamely into Hennessey’s hands.
Iran, whose World Cup squad have been distracted by a political crisis at home, came close again on 72 minutes when Hennessey got a fingertip on Saeid Ezatolahi’s shot, then piled on the pressure after Hennessey was sent off for dangerous play when he charged out of his area and clattered into the onrushing Mehdi Taremi.
Before the game kicked off, Iran sang during the playing of their national anthem having refrained from doing so in their opening game earlier on Monday in apparent support of protesters back home.
Loud jeers were heard from Iranian supporters as the anthem played, with the team singing quietly as it played.
Iranian authorities have responded with deadly force to suppress protests that have marked one of the boldest challenges to its clerical rulers since the 1979 Islamic revolution.
Inside the stadium ahead of the match, a number of supporters had shown support for the protests.
A woman with dark red tears painted from her eyes held aloft a football jersey with “Mahsa Amini – 22“ printed on the back – a reference to the 22-year-old Iranian Kurdish woman whose death while in the custody of morality police two months ago ignited the nationwide protests, a Reuters photo showed.
A man standing next to her held a shirt printed with the words “WOMEN, LIFE, FREEDOM”, one of the main chants of the protests.
Ahead of the World Cup, protesters had taken heart from apparent shows of support from a number of Iran’s national teams which refrained from singing the national anthem, such as the basketball team.
Team Melli, as the football team is known, have traditionally been a huge source of national pride in Iran, but they have found themselves caught up in politics in the lead-up to the World Cup, with anticipation over whether they would use football’s showpiece event as a platform to get behind the protesters.
Asked on Thursday about the unrest at home, Iran striker Mehdi Taremi said they were in Qatar to play football.
“We are not under pressure,” he added after players refused to sing the national anthem in their opening 6-2 defeat against England.
Before travelling to Doha, the team met with hardline Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi. Photos of the players with Raisi, one of them bowing in front of him, went viral and prompted an outcry on social media. REUTERS