World Cup: Iran's Queiroz dismisses 'mental games', hopes for less politics at next tournament

Iran's players celebrate their World Cup Group B victory over Wales with their coach Carlos Queiroz on Friday. PHOTO: AFP

AL RAYYAN, Qatar – Iran coach Carlos Queiroz on Monday said he hoped the next World Cup would feature less politics and more football, stressing there were better ways to use the sport as a force for good.

Queiroz’s team have been dragged into a political crisis at home, pressured by protesters seeking to challenge the legitimacy of Iran’s clerical rulers to side with them publicly and condemn a deadly state crackdown.

Speaking ahead of his team’s Group B match on Tuesday against the United States, Queiroz was asked about the United States Soccer Federation temporarily displaying Iran’s national flag on social media without the emblem of the Islamic Republic, in solidarity with the protest movement.

A representative of Iran’s own federation on Sunday called for the US to be expelled from the World Cup claiming the federation had “disrespected” Iran’s flag.

“I still believe I can win games with those mental games,” he told a news conference.

“Those... events surrounding this World Cup, I hope will be a lesson for all of us in the future and we learn that our mission is here to create entertainment and for 90 minutes make people happy.”

His US counterpart Gregg Berhalter apologised for the incident, saying: “Sometimes, things are out of our control. All we can do is apologise on behalf of the players and staff, but it’s not something that we were a part of.

“We had no idea what US Soccer put out. For us, our focus is on this match.”

After Iran’s 6-2 drubbing by England, Queiroz vented his fury over what he called harassment and political pressure that had distracted his team, who have been criticised for not speaking out strongly over the deaths of protesters.

The Portuguese was also embroiled in a spat with former World Cup winner and former US and Germany coach Jurgen Klinsmann.

The 58-year-old Fifa experts panel member had said a series of niggling fouls and the conduct of the Iranian coaching staff during their subsequent 2-0 win over Wales was a deliberate strategy to make opponents “lose their focus” and part of “their culture”.

The two stoppage-time goals in that match put Team Melli back in contention to reach the last 16 for the first time.

The Qatar World Cup has been mired in controversy over the host country’s approach to LGBTQ rights and its treatment of migrant workers, while some nations have locked horns with world governing body Fifa over its move to sanction players if they wear a “One Love” armband on the pitch.

Queiroz said there was a time and place to use football to make an impact in the world and received applause from journalists when he spoke of “magic moments” from a simple gesture like giving footballs to impoverished children in Africa.

Tuesday’s clash is only the third time the two diplomatic rivals have met on the football field, and the stakes could not be higher.

A win for either side will see them advance to the knockout rounds while defeat will ensure elimination from the tournament. A draw will be enough for Iran if Wales fail to beat England.

“I don’t know enough about politics, I’m a soccer coach,” said Berhalter. “When I think about this match, I know that a lot of other constituents have a lot of other feelings towards it. But, for us, it’s a soccer game against a good team. And it’s not much more than that.” REUTERS, NYTIMES, AFP

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