Carlos Queiroz had a good idea of what to do when he agreed to return to his previous role as coach of the Iran national team in September, three years after ending his initial eight-year stint in charge on a $50,000 contract. Three months of work culminated in the World Cup. Or at least he thought he did.
Joining a politically sensitive group in Qatar, along with the United States, England and Wales — Iranian relations with the US and the United Kingdom have rarely been hostile since the Islamic revolution in 1979 — Queiroz must be both a football coach and diplomat to ensure Iran’s World Cup campaign goes as smoothly as possible.
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But within days of his return to Iran, protests against the death of Mahsa Amini, who died in police custody after being arrested for failing to wear her headscarf properly, began to escalate and sweep the country.
After about two months, the situation is unstable. As women continue to protest against the regime by cutting their hair and refusing to wear headscarves, former and current Iranian footballers join the protests on social media with posts supporting demands for more rights for women and society.
Outside of Iran, Ukraine has voiced calls for its national team, Iran’s nickname, Team Melli, to be kicked out of the World Cup because it claims the country is supplying Russia with military hardware to support its aggression. Ukraine.
As coach of the national team, Queiroz is a key figure in Iranian football, but the former Real Madrid coach and long-time assistant to Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United has chosen to avoid the issue that is now consuming Iran. Asked at a training camp in Tehran last week about the ongoing protests and unrest in the country — and suggestions from many in Iran that his team did not want to be the face of the Islamic regime — Queiroz decided to clarify his offering. Comment on the situation.
Speaking to ESPN Queiroz in late September during a training break in Vienna, Austria, ahead of friendlies against Uruguay and Senegal, “Most Iranians have a clear answer to this campaign. They want their national football team to participate in the 2022 World Cup.”
The Amini protests had already begun, and anxiety within the Iranian camp led ESPN and other Western media outlets to ban U-turn from attending the Uruguay game in St. Polten on game day. Iranian concerns of protests at the game were well-founded, with Austrian police evicting supporters for displaying banners bearing Amini’s name.
Queiroz was asked for his observations on the situation in Iran, but responded by replying, “I have no ideas.”
His position was clear. He talks about Iran’s prospects in football and Qatar, but everything else is off limits. The 69-year-old has defied the ranks of the Iran Football Federation by agreeing to speak to ESPN, but nonetheless, those are only football questions.
The situation in Iran has escalated rather than abated since mid-September, but the World Cup kicks off in just over a week and Iran will face England in its opening match at the Khalifa Stadium on November 21. Below are Queiroz’s thoughts on the group, ahead of the United States’ final Group B match at Al Thumama Stadium on November 29.
ESPN: Despite being 20th in the FIFA world rankings, just below Wales (19) and the US (16), Iran have been written as the hoppers in the group, so does that give you extra motivation?
Queiroz: Never. I never think that way because I don’t care what others think about us. We think about ourselves. We have our strengths and qualities and we have some weaknesses as all teams do. No one is perfect and at the right moment, it’s time to talk inside the pitch.
Those feelings or those comments, they don’t count. But at the end of the day the important thing is to perform well in the match, play good football and leave the result in God’s hands. That’s what we can do.
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ESPN: Iran have never made it out of the group stage at a World Cup, so what are the expectations in Qatar?
Queiroz: For me, it is not bad to feel that we feel pressured to increase our responsibilities, our motivation and our duties. But within the group, our expectations to perform well are at the same level as everyone else’s.
We want to continue, be good and we have our expectations to reach the second stage of the World Cup. Nothing has changed. We go into our third World Cup with the same belief and the same ambition.
ESPN: Opener against England, one of the World Cup favourites. How strong are they?
Queiroz: I am happy to play in England like we are happy to play in Portugal or Spain in Iranian football. We are happy to play the best teams in the world because this is our life. We work to be among the best teams, among the best players in the world.
So it’s a happy moment to be with us. We work all our lives to be in the World Cup. And when we reach the World Cup, we will go there as the smallest players, but at the moment we are among the best 32 national teams in the world, so let’s enjoy it.
ESPN: Having worked in England with Manchester United, you know the frustration of a country and a team doing well, but you’ve seen them fail so many times in the past.
Queiroz: England is the top team. In the last few years, in international football, there is no doubt that England have been growing with better preparation and a clear vision. This is evident with the results on the pitch.
But I am not saying that this team is better than those days of David Beckham and Paul Scholes or that they are better players. They are not at that stage, but the difference now is that England are showing clear direction and vision of where all the players and all the team want to go. Hence it creates a team that is more stable and able to compete.
But this World Cup is different because we are going to face a completely new structure — a short rest between games, a competition played in November, which is completely different compared to other World Cups, so we have players. Europe arriving in Qatar with 15-20 games in their legs.
In other World Cups, they have 65-70 games in their legs, so let’s see what happens.
ESPN: The match against the US is the final group game and could decide both teams’ qualification hopes. You coached in the MLS with the New York/New Jersey Metrostars in the 1990s. How do you see the US team and the nation progressing in soccer?
Queiroz: I see progress, football progress everywhere. Most people don’t see it, but professionals, we know. The game is moving forward in the US — it’s faster, more quick thinking, quicker decisions by players, so we have to be aware of that.
This happens in all countries including the US but year after year, they are comparing well with other continents. Now he has connections with players in bigger countries and competitions. USA football players are growing fast and comparing with other countries of the world and other continents.
ESPN: Can Iran surprise people at this World Cup?
Queiroz: What we expect in the World Cup is great games, great matches, great performances. Iran, England, Wales, Spain, Portugal, USA — everyone should be involved with the same goal to create happiness, joy and pride for our supporters.