Qatar World Cup: Iran captain says English media playing 'mental game' ahead of match
Iran's football team captain Alireza Jahanbakhsh has suggested that British media is attempting to disrupt his squad's preparation ahead of their opening World Cup match against England on Monday by invoking recent protests back home.
England's Three Lions are set to play Iran's Team Melli in the Khalifa International Stadium, a match England has 70 percent chance of winning according to Google search engine predictions.
Jahanbakhsh, 29, an attacking midfielder and a former English Premier League player, was answering a question on Thursday about how the mass anti-government protests in Iran had affected the football national team's readiness for the World Cup.
"I'm not surprised you are asking this question. I think everyone is expecting this sort of question and I assume you’re from the English media probably," Jahanbakhsh answered.
He said the Iranian team travelled to Qatar "for our duty and our duty is to play football".
"To be honest, I’m not sure if England wasn’t in our group you would have come with this question firstly," he told the reporter.
Jahanbakhsh then suggested that English media is attempting to play a "mental game" with such questions.
"Ok, play a mental game, ask a question about what’s going on here or there or whatever, but we have just four days to go to play one of the biggest games of our lives, every single person involved in Team Melli, and all of us are focusing on that game," he said.
Iranians have been protesting across the country since September when 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died in custody after being arrested by police, which accused her of not wearing her headscarf correctly.
At least 326 people have been killed, including 43 children and 25 women, in the crackdown on the protests, according to the Oslo-based group Iran Human Rights (IHR).
More than 15,000 people have been arrested, according to IHR, a figure the Iranian authorities have denied.
On Tuesday, Iranian former football star Ali Daei announced that he will not attend the World Cup in Qatar in solidarity with Iranians who died during the Amini protests.
Daei, the second-leading goalscorer in the history of men's international football with 109 goals, wrote on Monday to his 10.6 million followers on Instagram, telling them of his decision.
"In these days when most of us are not feeling well, I answered No to the official invitation of Fifa and Qatar Football Federation to attend the World Cup with my wife and daughters," Daei, now an established football manager and businessman, wrote.
He added that he chose to "be by your side in my homeland and express my sympathy with all the families who have lost loved ones these days".
Daei had his passport taken away on his return to Iran in October over his public support for the protests. It was later returned to him, AFP reported.
Iran coach Carlos Queiroz said this week that Iranian players are free to protest during the World Cup providing that they conform to tournament regulations.
"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 said at a news conference in Doha.