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The National (Scotland)
The National (Scotland)
Joe Callaghan

Iran remind us all of football's power to unite with Wales win - Joe Callaghan

Didn’t Paul McCartney write a song about the Mall of Qatar? 

We can’t be sure because the air of it escapes us, standing in the searing, breathless midday heat of its vast asphalt carpark. Pretty sure he didn’t mention that part. No mist rolling or valleys of green either. Concrete, though? As far as the eye can see. How much do you need?

Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium was built for this World Cup of concrete, put next to the mega-retail space so the footprint of the Mall of Qatar complex ate a little bit more into the desert, of which there is no shortage either. The shopping centre cost $1.4 billion and has almost 600 stores. They’re not into subtlety the Qataris. 

As the early hordes of fans spilled out of the Mall’s metro station around 11am things were still on the sleepier side. Brazil had kept us all up late on Thursday night. Friday morning would come to us all gradually. That was the same pace at which they approached the entry points but here something was different. There was a little fenced-in pen with a small A4 sign that read ‘Flags & Banners Evaluation Area’. 

Ah yes. Evaluation. This winter World Cup that has made us all evaluate our relationship with the sport is far from done with its meddling and pandering and clusterf***ery. Qatar 2022, the tournament filled with political overtones, undertones and right-through-your-chest tones rolls on. But its first Friday served up a stirring reminder of how this sport, how the unity of team and place and purpose, can still fuel an independent spirit that cannot be contained or curtailed in evaluation areas. 

The National: Iranian protesters in QatarIranian protesters in Qatar (Image: Getty)

When it did get loud — and boy did it — it was Iranian voices that soared, that scraped the cloudless skies on a day of agony and ecstasy. Of anger too. All of the above and all of the time. They were never silenced. When Rouzbeh Cheshmi unleashed the rocket that won it, it was cacophonous. It might be a while til they’re next quiet, with progress beyond the group stage now very much in their hands. 

The pressure Carlos Queiroz and his side have been under here has been as suffocating as the heat. Protests in the wake of the death of Mahsa Amini continue to roil their homeland. As does the bloody and brutal crackdown by its ruling religious leaders. When Iranian players made the remarkable stand of refusing to sing the Islamic Republic’s anthem in their opener, the pressure tick, tick, ticked up anew. 

So as they lined up here and waited for the Welsh masses to give their anthem the most stirring rendition. All eyes were on Iranian lips. They moved…but barely. The 11 on the field mumbled and half whispered their way through it, the reports of intimidation from powerful conservatives at home only strengthening the sense that this was patriotism under duress and no more. 

As the cameras panned into the stands, Iranian lips did something they different: they quivered and trembled and caught tears. It was a genuinely moving scene. The booing and jeering of the anthem was deafening, or so we thought. That term would be redefined 98 minutes and a half-time break later. 

Queiroz has attempted to protect his players from the turmoil but it’s impossible for them to. On the eve of their second game here, Iranian security forces arrested popular player Voria Ghafouri back home, a threat that carried the kind of subtlety Qataris must marvel at. 

The host nation have appeared all too happy do the regime’s bidding here. But their Evaluation Area is clearly as well equipped as those fan camps where you sleep in a Bikram gardening shed. The banners got through and were unfurled. One with the words ‘Women, Life, Freedom’ seized for being offensive. So too an Iranian jersey with Mahsa Amini’s name on it. We’ve been working on our lingo but haven’t yet learned the Arabic for the Streisand effect but it’s a popular way of doing things here. 

There were some boos for Queiroz too, the manager who has wished all of this would go away and we could all just concentrate on the football. It rarely so simple Carlos. And certainly not here of all places. The potential now for Iran to go deeper into the tournament will only bring more spotlight on the tightrope he and his players walk but more importantly why they must walk it. There’ll be more focus on the Iranians in the stands too. 

The National: Carlos Queiroz is lifted in the airCarlos Queiroz is lifted in the air (Image: Getty)

Wales, the football team and the country, also carry with them a new spirit of independence. The national team’s march back to this stage for the first time in a lifetime has helped fire a new moment, a wave of national pride in place and a moment that has been called indy-curious. 

Their run here may not last much longer. Certainly not on this evidence. They somehow survived for 98 minutes playing the most ponderous and fruitless form of football. Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey were as dreadful as each other, Kieffer Moore gallantly galloping but getting no service. Their high defensive line was a weakness from the off. 

And yet they nearly got away with it all, their goal living a charmed life as Iranians tested its woodwork twice. Goalkeeper Wayne Hennessy nearly got away with GBH til VAR intervened. Still they had mere minutes to survive but couldn’t. 

The clock hit 98 of 99 and substitute Joe Allen scuffed a clearance out where Cheshmi latched on to it and rifled one low and lovely past Danny Ward. Pure pandemonium as blurs of white jerseys skittled around, red bodies falling through the turf hoping to be swallowed. 

But the noise would somehow climb once more. Two minutes later, Wales committed forward, Iran broke and another substitute Ramin Rezaeian had the poise to chip Ward. It was joy unconfined. Unconfined by a despotic regime or, for those brief moments, by the worries and the searching questions about same, unconfined even by this conflicting concrete tournament. Just joy.

Maybe they’ll actually write a song about the Mall of Qatar after all. It was the kinda day that deserves one. 

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