Carlos Queiroz had a pretty good idea 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 initial eight-year stint in charge, on a $50,000 contract for three months’ work culminating at the World Cup. Or at least he thought he did.
Pitched into a politically sensitive group in Qatar alongside the United States, England and Wales — Iranian relations with the U.S. and United Kingdom have rarely been anything other than hostile since the Islamic Revolution in 1979 — Queiroz would need to be both football coach and diplomat to ensure that Iran’s World Cup campaign passed off as smoothly as possible.
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But within days of him returning 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 engulf the country.
Almost two months on, the situation remains volatile. Women continue to protest against the regime by cutting their hair and refusing to wear headscarves, with Iranian footballers, past and present, joining the protests on social media with posts that support the demands for greater rights for women and society.
Outside of Iran, calls for Team Melli — Iran’s nickname for their national team — to be kicked out of the World Cup have been voiced by Ukraine because of claims that the country is supplying military hardware to Russia in order to support its invasion of Ukraine.
As national team coach, Queiroz is the leading figure of Iranian football, but the former Real Madrid coach and Sir Alex Ferguson’s longtime assistant at Manchester United has chosen to avoid the subject that is now consuming Iran. When asked during a training camp in Tehran last week about the ongoing protests and unrest in the country — and suggestions that many within Iran do not want their team to be the face of the Islamic regime — Queiroz chose to steer clear of giving his opinion on the situation.
When ESPN spoke to 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 the anxiety within the Iranian camp led to ESPN and other Western media outlets being banned from attending the Uruguay game in St. Polten before a U-turn on the day of the game. Iranian concerns of protests at the game proved well-founded, with supporters ejected by the Austrian police for displaying banners bearing Amini’s name.
Queiroz was asked for his observations about the situation in Iran, but replied by saying, “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 had defied the Iranian Football Federation hierarchy by even agreeing to speak to ESPN, but nonetheless, it was to be football questions only.
The situation in Iran has escalated rather than subsided since mid-September, but with the World Cup due to start in just over a week and Iran due to face England in their opening game at the Khalifa Stadium on Nov. 21 before their meeting against the United States at Al Thumama Stadium in the final Group B game on Nov. 29, Queiroz’s views on the group are below.
ESPN: Iran has been written off as the no-hoper in the group, despite being 20th in the FIFA world rankings, just below Wales (19) and the U.S. (16), so does that give you extra motivation?
Queiroz: Never. I never think that way because I don’t care about what other people think about us. We think about us. We have our strengths and qualities, and we have of course some weaknesses as all teams do. Nobody is perfect and in the right moment, it’s time to speak inside the pitch.
Those feelings or those comments, they don’t count. But at the end of the day, in the match, what will be important is to make a great performance, play good football and leave the result in the hands of God. That’s what we can do.
ESPN: Iran has never made it out of the group stage at a World Cup, so what are the expectations in Qatar?
Queiroz: For me, it’s not bad to feel that we feel that pressure to raise our responsibilities, our motivation and our duties. But inside the group, our expectations to do well are exactly in the same level as everyone else.
We want to move forward, be better, and for sure we have our expectations to reach the second stage of the World Cup. Nothing has changed. We go for our third World Cup together with the same belief and the same ambition to be there.
ESPN: The opening game is against England, one of the World Cup favourites. How strong are they?
Queiroz: I’m glad to play England, as we are glad in Iranian football to play Portugal or Spain. We are happy to play the best teams in the world because this is our life. We work to be among the best teams in the world, among the best players.
So to be there for us, it’s a moment of happiness. We work all our lives to be in the World Cup. And when we reach World Cup, we go there as minor players, but we are among the best 32 national teams in the world in this moment, so let’s enjoy it.
ESPN: Having worked in England with Manchester United, you know the country and the desperation of the team to do well, but you have seen them fail many times before.
Queiroz: England are a top team. There is no doubt that in the last few years, in international football, that England is growing up with better preparation and a clear vision. It is clear with the results on the pitch.
But I’m not saying that this team is better, or they are better players, from those days of David Beckham and Paul Scholes. They are not at that point, but the difference now is that England is showing a clear direction and vision to where all the players and all the team must go. So this creates a team that is much more consistent and able to compete.
But this World Cup is something different because we are going to face a completely new build-up — short periods of rest between the games, a competition played in November, which is completely different comparing with other World Cups, so we have players in Europe that will arrive in Qatar with 15-20 games in their legs.
In the other World Cups, they have 65-70 games in their legs, so let’s see what happens.
ESPN: The game against the U.S. is the final group fixture and could decide the qualification hopes of both teams. You coached in MLS with the New York/New Jersey MetroStars in the 1990s. How do you see the U.S. team and the progress made by the nation in football?
Queiroz: I see progress, football progress all over the place. The majority of the people they don’t see it, but the professionals, we know. The game is moving forward in the U.S. — it is faster, more quick-thinking, quick decisions from the players, so we have to be aware of that.
This happens with all countries as well, including the U.S. But year after year, they are taking off and comparing well with other continents. Now they have connections with players in big countries and competitions. The USA football players are growing up fast and comparing with other countries and other continents in the world.
ESPN: Can Iran surprise people in this World Cup?
Queiroz: What we expect in the World Cup is great games, great matches, great performances. Iran, England, Wales, Spain, Portugal, USA — everybody should be engaged with only one goal to create joy, happiness and pride for our supporters.