Iran’s Ehsan Hajsafi: ‘The conditions in our country are not right’

The Guardian
Monday 21 November 2022

In a significant, politically freighted intervention, Iran’s captain Ehsan Hajsafi has said he would be happy for his team to serve as a force for change in a country where protests against the regime in Tehran continue to escalate.

As Iran’s government faces its most critical moment since the Islamic revolution in 1979, Hajsafi, a left-back at AEK Athens, on Sunday night addressed a press conference before his team’s opening World Cup group game against England in Doha on Monday.

“We have to accept the conditions in our country are not right and our people are not happy,” he said. “We are here but it does not mean we should not be their voice or we must not respect them. “Whatever we have is from them. We have to fight. We have to perform and score some goals to present the brave people of Iran with a result. I hope conditions change as to the expectations of the people.”

A popular uprising has been gaining momentum since September after the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22‑year‑old detained by the country’s morality police for allegedly not covering her head properly.

Since then protests against the rules forcing women to wear the hijab have expanded into widespread discontent with the country’s strict theocracy, with more than 380 people said to have been killed by security forces.

As a byproduct, Carlos Queiroz’s team has been placed in the unenviable position of being required to represent the Islamic republic while being under intense pressure to support millions of protesting compatriots. “The situation in Iran is very difficult,” said Hajsafi, who is aware human rights groups have called for Iran’s expulsion from the World Cup.

Tellingly, before taking questions he opened by offering support for those who had lost loved ones during the recent turmoil. “I would like to express my condolences to all the bereaved families,” he said. “They should know we are with them, we support them and we sympathize with them.”

A key moment will arrive shortly before kick-off when members of a squad thought to be still slightly divided as to how to respond must take individual decisions as to whether to sing a national anthem, all about glorifying the 1979 revolution.

It all dictated that, at the end of a day in which light winds whipped through Doha, creating piles of dust at almost every turn, Queiroz found himself at the eye of a diplomatic sandstorm he opted to ignore on Sunday.

Iran’s Portuguese coach, and former assistant to Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United, preferred to concentrate on a different type of whirlwind. “England have a storm of talent,” the 69-year-old said as he smothered Gareth Southgate with flattery. “England are one of the top teams in the world. They are a contender to be the world champion. They have fantastic, strong talent and a great coach.”

It will be the first time Queiroz has faced England and he claimed not to have sought any advice from Ferguson. “I did not receive any help from Scotland,” he said. “Of course, we talk frequently as friends. But you can relax!”

He then launched into an ode to English players, claiming they were superior to the team of recent predecessors dominated by David Beckham, Rio Ferdinand, and Paul Scholes. “This new generation of players Southgate is bringing for the national team in my opinion is probably the most competitive English team since 1966 that I have the opportunity to see – and I remember that team very well. But this team is very functional, very practical, very realistic.

“I worked with the generation of Rio, of Paul Scholes. Fantastic players, David Beckham and all those guys. But this national team is really different. They make a realistic approach to every single game which makes them very, very dangerous.”

Although Queiroz said Iran believed they could reach the knockout stage he confessed Monday would contain a surreal quality. “For many of our players to play against England is like magic, it’s a gift,” he said. “Since watching football as kids, it’s been a lifelong dream for my players to play in this game. We will enjoy it.”