By Nick Mulvenney
AL RAYYAN, Qatar, Nov 17 (Reuters) – Iranian soccer player Alireza Jahanbakhsh said on Thursday that the focus of the team at the World Cup in Qatar was resolutely on the competition and not on political issues related to the nationwide protests in his country.
Several Iranian sportsmen and women have used international competition to indicate their support for the protests that have rocked the country since the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in the custody of the morality police in September.
Let's all ask #teammelli and #USMNT players and soccer fans everywhere to #Kneel4Mahsa on November 29 when the Islamic regime's anthem plays, in memory of #MahsaAmini and in support of Iranian women's rights. Please retweet and tag your favorite players. pic.twitter.com/UhLxTnPw5D
— Pendar (@legofish) November 9, 2022
Jahanbakhsh said the team would decide among themselves whether they would sing the national anthem before matches but “had never made a big deal out of it”, adding that goal celebrations were a personal matter for each player.
Clearly primed to talk about the issue, Jahanbakhsh switched from Farsi to English before opening with the suggestion that the questioning was an attempt to distract the Iranians before their first match against England on Monday.
“I assume you are probably part of the English media and I’m going to start with this: Like every one of you know, we are here for our duty and our duty is to play football,” he told reporters at the team’s training camp.
“To be honest, I’m not sure if England wasn’t in our group, you would have come with this question …”
Jahanbakhsh said he and his team mates were bound first and foremost by a loyalty to the national team, also known as Team Melli.
Iran's men's soccer team is widely known as "Team Melli" (the "National Team").
This is not a national team. pic.twitter.com/nrutSEyLMA
— Kaveh Shahrooz کاوه شهروز (@kshahrooz) November 14, 2022
Well, yesterday the Iranian national football team had a "friendly meeting" with Raisi, the President of the Islamic Republic. Since then they have been criticised for it, and now this… People show their anger at them by burning a banner in support of the Iranian "Team Melli" pic.twitter.com/g6XfxHvdeY
— ERSHAD ALIJANI (@ErshadAlijani) November 15, 2022
“If you asked this question outside my duty for Team Melli, I would have answered the question with the details for you,” added the winger, who played in England for three years with Brighton and Hove Albion.
“But since I was a kid, I have always dreamed of playing for the national team and Team Melli has always been a big dream for me. I’m sure is the same … for everyone in the squad.
“What I learned has always been to been respect the jersey, to respect the Team Melli no matter what.
“At the end of the day, when football comes together, we can make joy, we can bring happiness to the people.”
Weeks of protests in Iran triggered by Amini’s death have turned into one of the boldest challenges to the clerical leadership since the 1979 revolution.
Iran on Thursday accused Israel and Western intelligence services of plotting to start a civil war in the Islamic Republic.
Several Iranian athletes have recently refrained from singing the national anthem to convey support for the demonstrations.
“It’s easy to play the mental game, ask questions about what’s going on here, there or whatever,” Jahanbakhsh said.
“But we are four days from playing one of the biggest games of our lives. All of us will be focusing on that game.
“You talk about celebrations, celebrations is something very personal, every single player has his own celebration.
“You ask about the national anthem, that’s also something that has to be decided in the team, which we already talked about. We’ve never made a big deal about it, because everybody is only thinking and talking about football.”
After their opener against England on Monday, Iran take on Wales on Nov. 25 before rounding out their Group B campaign against the United States four days later.
(Additional reporting by Dubai Newsroom; additional writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Toby Chopra, Mark Heinrich, William Maclean)