ST. POLTEN, Austria -- It was supposed to be just a game, nothing more than a World Cup warm-up friendly between Iran and Uruguay in a sleepy town in rural Austria. Perhaps it'd be a perfect opportunity to scout an Iranian team that will face the United States and England in Group B at Qatar 2022 in two months' time. But the reality turned out to be something different.
Instead of a regular international fixture, it became an event at the heart of the growing campaign of unrest in Iran surrounding women's rights, and a focal point for a young population demanding change. The game was scheduled to be played behind closed doors -- though fans from both teams were surprisingly allowed into the stadium shortly before kickoff -- at the insistence of the Iranian government. They were reportedly fearful of domestic issues being given a public platform in Europe, to the extent that phone calls and WhatsApp messages to the Iranian Football Federation (IFF), simply seeking information on the team schedule and access to the coach, Carlos Queiroz, went unanswered.
The silence also extended to ESPN and other media outlets being told 24 hours before the game that the IFF, under pressure from the regime in Tehran, would not allow journalists into St. Polten's NV Arena to report on the fixture. "To our greatest discomfort," the match organisers said via email, "we have to inform you that the entrance to the match Iran vs Uruguay has been denied. This decision was made by the Iranian FA."
It required the intervention of FIFA, and mediation by Europe-based Iranian journalists, to cause a U-turn on the day of the game. A suggestion that media could attend if they handed over mobile phones before entering the stadium did not materialise, but it was made clear that no interviews with players or Queiroz would be allowed before or after the game.
While the urbane Queiroz was welcoming and cooperative with media at the Pyramide Hotel on the outskirts of Vienna on the day before the game, there was a palpable sense of anxiety and paranoia among the Iranian officials who tried to persuade the former Real Madrid coach to cancel his briefing. Given that the football team is one of the few visible elements of a restricted society in Iran -- they face England, the U.S. and Wales in the World Cup this winter -- every element of team coverage, particularly during such volatile political times, is guaranteed to attract close scrutiny from the regime in Tehran.
One Austria-based Iran fan smiled and said, "Everything is fine and totally normal in Iran," when asked about the possibility of protest from those who had turned out to cheer the arrival of the team bus. Moments later, he returned alone to say he had family in Iran and was too worried to speak to western media, but that "even in small cities, people are protesting right now."
When fans were inexplicably allowed into the game, two spectators were marched out of the ground by police midway through the first-half of Iran's 1-0 win. They had a protest placard in support of Mahsa Amini, the 22-year-old woman who died in police custody in Iran last week after being charged with wearing a headscarf improperly.
In the end, a game intended to be about assessing the strengths and weaknesses of a team that will compete in Qatar this November turned out to be the very definition of political football.
"The 86 million people of Iran, and especially the young women of Iran, deserve better"
For the first time in 43 years, women in Iran are legally allowed to attend men's football games following the lifting of a ban, which dated back to the 1979 Islamic Revolution in the country barring women from male sporting events.
Despite the law change, introduced ahead of Qatar 2022 following pressure from FIFA after women were pepper sprayed outside a World Cup qualifier against Lebanon in March, women must sit separately from men and use female-only entrances when attending games in Iran.
Football has long been a cause of concern for the Iranian government due to the prospect of large crowds protesting against the regime, while prominent footballers have used their status to speak out against the policies of the religious clerics who control the country. In some games since the lifting of the ban, women have held aloft placards in tribute to Sahar Khodayari, who died in 2019 when she set herself on fire after being charged with "openly committing a sinful act by appearing in public with a hijab" and "insulting officials" when caught trying to watch Esteghlal play Al Ain while disguised as a man.
"It's my opinion that Iranian athletes should not be allowed to compete on the world stage because the Iranian Islamic government uses athletes and sport to portray the country as a normal member of the family of nations," Sardar Pashaei, a former world wrestling champion and coach of the Iranian wrestling team, who is now based in the USA, told ESPN.
"The Islamic Republic has prohibited millions of Iranian women from participating in many sports and has taken away their opportunity to participate in international arenas," Pashaei said. "Protesting athletes are often imprisoned and even executed, like Navid Afkari." Afkari was an Iranian wrestler who was sentenced to death and executed in Sept. 2020 after being charged with murder and organising a protest; Afkari claimed he had been tortured into making a false confession.
Voria Ghafouri has not played for Iran since criticizing the country's foreign policy in 2019, while former Iran and Bayern Munich midfielder Ali Karimi, who wore a green wristband in support of an opposition leader during the 2010 World Cup, has used his social media channels in recent days to highlight the death of Mahsa Amini while in the custody of the morality police. Amini had been arrested for wearing a hijab headscarf "improperly." (Four players, including Karimi, were "retired" from national team duty for wearing those wristbands.)
Amini's death has led to widespread protest and acts of rebellion throughout Iran, with women removing headscarves and cutting their hair on various social media platforms. Zobeir Niknafs, a player with Tehran-based Esteghlal, published an Instagram video this week in which he shaved his head in a display of solidarity with the women's protests.
It is against this backdrop that, according to sources, high-ranking government officials in Tehran insisted on the game between Iran and Uruguay being played behind closed doors due to the risk of the sizeable Iranian community in Austria using the fixture to demonstrate against the government. Next Tuesday's game against Senegal, also in Austria in a place called Maria Enzersdorf, will also be played behind closed doors.
The nervousness of the regime is likely to extend to the World Cup, with Iran in a politically-charged group alongside the United States and England, but tickets for games against both nations are already nearly sold out, so there will be no safety net of empty stands in Qatar.
But for some activists, the links between the Iranian regime and its national sports teams are so intertwined that they believe Iran should be barred from competing in the international arena.
"Voria Ghafouri, the captain of the Esteghlal team, was not only removed from the team, but his picture was not allowed to be shown on Iranian television," Pashaei said. "For these reasons, I believe that a government that does not believe in human values and human rights and uses their sports for 'sports washing' does not deserve to be in the international sports community.
"The 86 million people of Iran, and especially the young women of Iran, deserve better."
"But in the right moment, the time comes to speak on the pitch. What others think doesn't matter"
Iran go into Qatar 2022 as the highest-ranked men's team in Asia, sitting at 22 in the FIFA men's world rankings. Qatar will be Iran's sixth World Cup finals appearance, and they are regarded as a regional powerhouse with only Japan (4) winning more Asian Cups than the Iranians (3).
But the national team is in a state of flux less than two months ahead of Iran's opening game against England. A new president and two vice presidents were elected by the IFF on Aug. 30. A week later, coach Dragan Skocic was fired and replaced by Queiroz, Sir Alex Ferguson's long-standing assistant at Manchester United, who has returned to take charge of "Team Melli" ("national team" in Persian) after previously managing the country between 2011 to 2019.
"I feel I'm home," Queiroz said after agreeing a $50,000 salary package in order to take charge until the end of the World Cup. "That's the best feeling you can have."
Sources have told ESPN that Skocic lost the faith of the players -- Porto striker Mehdi Taremi was dropped by Skocic after a dispute -- and that Queiroz's return has calmed tensions within the squad. Sixteen members of Iran's 2018 World Cup squad have been selected by Queiroz for the friendlies against Uruguay and Senegal including 35-year-old defensive midfielder Omid Ebrahimi, who made just two appearances under Skocic in the last two years. Winger Ramin Rezaeian has also been recalled after three years out of the national team.
"This is not a revolution moment to change the future of football in Iran," Queiroz said. "We will build on the legacy of the previous coach, just as he built on my legacy. This is about short-term decisions, so I will study the recent games and decisions and take the best from that and improve what we can do to be better when the World Cup starts."
While Queiroz's 27-man squad is largely drawn from Iran's Persian Gulf Pro League, Taremi is one of 10 players who ply their trade in Europe, including winger Alireza Jahanbakhsh (Feyenoord), striker Sardar Azmoun (Bayer Leverkusen) and midfielder Saman Ghoddos (Brentford).
In a feisty encounter against Uruguay, Iran were organised and disciplined, winning 1-0 with a 79th minute goal by Taremi. Liverpool's Darwin Nunez and former Atletico Madrid forward Luis Suarez were well contained by defenders Hossein Kanani and Shoja Khalilzadeh, who will be expected to do the same against Harry Kane in the World Cup opener against England on Nov. 21.
In midfield, Saeid Ezatolahi gave a solid performance in the number 6 position, while Azmoun was a reliable and physical presence as centre-forward. With the narrow win, Iran certainly dispelled the perception that they will be rank outsiders in Group B in Qatar.
"I don't care about what others think," Queiroz said when asked before the game about being written off as no-hopers. "I care about us. I can't control other people's opinions, but we have our strengths and qualities, but we also have weaknesses like all teams.
"Inside the group, our expectations to do well are exactly the same as our fans' and just as in 2014 and 2018, our expectations are to reach the second round. But in the right moment, the time comes to speak on the pitch. What others think doesn't matter. At the end of the day, in the match, what will be important is to play well, give a good performance and leave the result in the hands of God."
The unfortunate reality for Queiroz and his players, however, is that their performances and results in Qatar will be overshadowed by much more important issues back home. As has been shown by players and supporters alike in recent days, there is a readiness to speak out about the domestic situation, despite the risks involved. (The players also updated their social media profiles on Friday to show solidarity with the ongoing protests.)
But the Iran football team cannot escape the pressure, however subtle, that is applied from above, and they will play in Qatar shouldering a burden much heavier than that borne by any of their opponents.