Iran’s players are free to join in the protests sweeping their country over women’s rights while they are playing at the World Cup in Qatar but must do so within the rules of the tournament, national team coach Carlos Queiroz said on Tuesday.
The rights activist HRANA news agency said 344 people have been killed and 15,280 arrested over the last two months of nationwide protests triggered by the death of 22-year-old Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini in the custody of the morality police.
Iran said her death was due to pre-existing conditions and accused its enemies of fomenting the unrest to destabilise the country. The demonstrations have turned into a legitimacy crisis for the clerical establishment, in power for over four decades.
Iran’s players covered up their national team badge when they played two warm-up internationals in September, which was interpreted as a sign of support for the protests.
But they have been heavily criticised on Twitter in the last few days for meeting with Iranian leaders before their departure for Doha, where they trained for the first time on Tuesday.
“The players are free to protest as they would if they were from any other country as long as it conforms with the World Cup regulations and is in the spirit of the game,” Queiroz told a news conference.
“But you can also express yourself on the field in the game of football and the players have only one thing on their mind and that is to fight to qualify for the second round,” he said.
World soccer’s governing body FIFA has been opposed to players, teams and fans engaging in protests and sloganeering but in the last year has taken a more tolerant attitude to towards protests, like when several teams wore t-shirts calling for human rights in protests aimed at World Cup hosts Qatar.
Queiroz was also asked whether he was proud to coach a country that repressed women and in a tense retort asked the reporter how much he would pay him to answer the question.
The coach said Iran’s players had set themselves the target of reaching the second round, despite being paired in a tough Group B with England, Wales and the United States. They start against England at the Khalifa International Stadium on Monday.
Iran have failed in their five previous World Cup finals appearances to reach the second round. “They don’t only want to be part of history but also to make history,” added Queiroz.
“If we bring joy and pleasure to the people then we have done our job as footballers and that’s the most important issue for me as national team coach.”
Queiroz, who has managed at the last four World Cups, said he felt an out-of-form England could be beaten but must also be respected. “There are few teams who can do what they did in coming back in their last match against Germany,” he said.
England recovered from 2-0 down to draw 3-3 with Germany at Wembley in their final Nations League game in September.