DOHA, Qatar -- The political situation back home has been a regular line of questioning for Iran ahead of the team’s opening Group B match against England at the World Cup.
Large swathes of people in the country have risen up to protest for women’s rights following the death of Mahsa Amini while being detained for allegedly breaking rules regarding head coverings.
On Sunday, a journalist from Iran decided to ask England coach Gareth Southgate about British politics, bringing up the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“I understand the frustration from your team regarding the questions,” Southgate said, referring to near-constant inquiries about the unrest in Iran. “It’s a very difficult situation. And, believe me, I’ve been asked lots and lots of political questions by our media about lots of subjects for six years, so we’re both in the same situation on that.
“I understand in the position I’m in that there is a responsibility for me to answer some of those questions.”
Iran captain Ehsan Hajisafi also had to face political questions on Sunday. He paused before giving a considered response.
“We have to accept that the conditions in our country are not right and our people are not happy,” Hajisafi said. “We are here, but it does not mean that we should not be their voice or we should not respect them.
“Whatever we are is from them. We have to fight. We have to perform the best we can and score goals and to present the bereaved people of Iran with the results. And I hope that the conditions change towards the expectations of the people.”
The protests have seen prominent former players Ali Daei and Javad Nekounam both say they have declined an invitation from FIFA to attend the World Cup.
Actor and comedian Omid Djalili, who was born in London to Iranian parents, said Iran should be banned from the tournament and called on England’s players to make a statement in support of those protesting.
He used Twitter to ask players who score a goal against Iran to mimic cutting their hair, which has been adopted by women in the country as a sign of defiance against the rules of compulsory hijab wearing.
“My message to England players right now is you have an opportunity to do a very, very small gesture to make massive global impact,” he said. “I think England players, Wales and USA players — when they score, if you just make this one simple of statement of hair, snip, that sends a huge message to the women and girls of Iran.”
Southgate, who led England to the semifinals of the 2018 World Cup and the final of last year’s European Championship, embraced the theme of soccer’s ability to heal when saying he wants to bring joy to the nation amid the rising cost of living in Britain.
“Look, our challenge is to give our supporters a tournament that’s memorable,” he said. “We’ve taken them on fantastic journeys in our last two tournaments, and we want to bring (them on another).
“Our country is going also through a difficult spell — not the same as some of the other countries around the world at the moment, but we’re in the middle of an economic recession and life has been difficult for a lot of our people. So, we want them to enjoy their football and have a journey with the team that brings some real happiness.”
AP World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/world-cup and https://twitter.com/AP—Sports
James Robson is at https://twitter.com/jamesalanrobson