Carlos Queiroz had a good idea of what he was signing up for in September when he agreed to return to his previous role as coach of the Iran national team, three years after ending his first eight years in charge on a $50,000 contract. Three months of hard work culminated in the World Cup. Or at least he thought he did.
Turning to a politically sensitive group in Qatar along with the United States, England and Wales — Iranian relations with the US and the United Kingdom have been anything but hostile since the 1979 Islamic revolution — Queiroz also needs a football coach. diplomat to ensure Iran’s World Cup campaign runs as smoothly as possible.
– Stream on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga and more (US)
But within days of his return to Iran, protests over the death of Mahsa Amini, who died in police custody after being arrested for not wearing the proper headscarf, began to engulf the country.
Almost two months on, the situation remains volatile. As women continue to protest against the regime by cutting their hair and refusing to wear headscarves, Iranian footballers, past and present, are joining the protests on social media with posts supporting demands for more rights for women and society.
Outside of Iran, Ukraine has called for its national team’s Iranian nickname, Melli, to be kicked out of the World Cup. Ukraine.
As the national team coach, Queiroz is the leading figure in Iranian football, but Sir Alex Ferguson, the former Real Madrid coach and long-time assistant to Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United, has chosen to avoid the issue affecting Iran at the moment. Asked during a training camp in Tehran last week about ongoing protests and unrest in the country — and suggestions that many in Iran do not want their team to be the face of Islamic State — Queiroz chose not to give his words. 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, he said, “Most of the Iranian people 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 to ESPN and other Western media outlets being banned from covering the Uruguay game in St. Polten before the U-turn on the day of the game. Iranian concerns about protests at the game proved well-founded, with Austrian police evicting supporters for displaying banners bearing Amini’s name.
Asked for his observations on the situation in Iran, Queiroz replied, “I have no thoughts.”
His position was clear. He would talk about football and Iran’s prospects in Qatar, but everything else was off limits. The 69-year-old defied the Iranian Football Federation hierarchy by even agreeing to speak to ESPN, however, it was only about football questions.
The situation in Iran has worsened since mid-September, but with the World Cup starting in a week’s time, Iran will face England in the opening match at the Khalifa Stadium on November 21. Below are Queiroz’s views on the group ahead of the United States in their final Group B match on November 29 at the Al Thumama Stadium.
ESPN: Does that give you more motivation that Iran was written off as a no-hopper in the group despite being 20th in the FIFA world rankings, just below Wales (19) and the US (16)?
Quiros: Never. I never think like that because I don’t care what other people think about us. We think about ourselves. We have our strengths and advantages and of course 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 opinions, they don’t count. But at the end of the day, in the competition, the important thing is to perform well, play good football and leave the result in God’s hands. That is what we can do.
Mark Ogden analyzes the USMNT’s draw for the World Cup, where England and IR Iran face each other in a European qualifier.
ESPN: Iran have never made it out of the group stage at a World Cup, so what are the expectations in Qatar?
Quiros: To me, it’s not bad to feel that pressure to increase our responsibilities, motivation and duties. But within the group, our expectations of doing well are at the same level as everyone else’s.
We want to go forward and be better and for sure we have our hopes 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 desire.
ESPN: The opening game is against England, one of the World Cup favourites. How strong are they?
Quiros: I’m as happy to play England as we are to play Portugal or Spain in Iranian football. We are happy to play the best teams in the world because this is our life. We work among the best players, among the best teams in the world.
So be with us, it’s a moment of joy. We have been working our whole life to play in the World Cup. When we get to the World Cup, we go there as minor players, but at the moment we are one of the best 32 national teams in the world, so let’s enjoy it.
ESPN: Having worked in England with Manchester United, you know the country and the team’s aspirations well, but you’ve seen them fail many times before.
Quiros: England is a great team. There is no doubt that over the past few years, in international football, England have been growing with better preparation and a clear vision. That is evident in the results on the field.
But I’m not saying that this team is better than David Beckham and Paul Scholes, or that they’re better players. They are not at that stage, but the difference now is that England are showing a clear direction and vision of where every player and every team needs to go. Hence it creates a more stable and competitive team.
But this World Cup is different because we are going to face a completely new build-up — short rest between games, a match in November, which is completely different compared to other World Cups, so we have players. Europe will come to Qatar with 15-20 games.
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 MLS in the 1990s with the New York/New Jersey MetroStars. How do you see the US team and the nation’s progress in soccer?
Quiros: I see progress everywhere and football progress. Most people don’t see it, but professionals, we do. The game is moving up in the US — it’s faster, more quick-thinking and quick decisions from players, so we have to be aware of that.
This happens in every country, including the US, but year after year, they compare well with other continents. Now they have connections with players from bigger countries and competitions. USA soccer players are growing rapidly and compared to other countries of the world and other continents.
ESPN: Can Iran surprise people at this World Cup?
Quiros: In the World Cup we expect better games, better matches and better performances. Iran, England, Wales, Spain, Portugal, USA — all must be committed to the same goal to create happiness, joy and pride for our supporters.