Jahanbakhsh accuses English media of trying to destabilise Iran at World Cup

In a press conference that at times resembled a diplomatic high-wire act, Iran’s captain, Alireza Jahanbakhsh, accused the English media of setting out to destabilise his team by asking questions about the protests raging back home.

Jahanbakhsh also appeared to insinuate that the press was playing such “mental games” as part of a broader English campaign to undermine Iran before the teams meet in their World Cup opener on Monday.

However, the attacking midfielder, who played for Brighton until a move to Feyenoord in the summer, then intriguingly conceded his answer might be different were he not representing his country in Doha.

Many Iranian sports stars have expressed support for protesters who want justice and reform after a 22-year-old woman, Mahsa Amini, died in police custody in September after her arrest for not correctly wearing a headscarf. The subsequent uprising led to a violent crackdown in which at least 348 people have been killed and more than 15,000 arrested. On Wednesday four protesters were also sentenced to death.

Jahanbakhsh, asked how the protests had affected Iran’s squad in the buildup to the tournament, was forced to display realpolitik skills worthy of Henry Kissinger.

“I’m not surprised you are asking this question,” he replied. “I assume you’re from the English media. To be honest, I’m not sure if England wasn’t in our group you would have come with this question, firstly. And secondly, we have been facing this already for a couple of weeks with all the English media – this was all the headlines as we get closer to the World Cup, whatever the reason is.”

Jahanbakhsh then suggested that the English press was playing a “mental game” before adding: “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.”

In a press conference that ended after just three questions – one of which came from an Iranian photographer, who then started taking pictures of the English media – Jahanbakhsh also acknowledged: “To be honest, if you ask this question outside my duty to the national team I would have answered the question with a different view.”

He then explained his reasons. “Since I was a kid I was always dreaming to play for the national team and Team Melli has always been a big dream for me and I’m sure it’s the same for everyone in the squad,” he said. “We always want to respect the jersey and to respect Team Melli no matter what and every single guy who represents the Iran national team has worked so hard to be here and for the last World Cups.

“We’ve been through a lot of difficulties, and throughout the years there has been a lot of ups and downs in every way we can talk about, but when football comes together I think we can make joy and we can make happiness for people.”

It was an understandable response given Iran’s players have to wrestle their support for human rights with understandable concern to not put their families back home in danger. However, in the past month Iran’s football, beach football, water polo and basketball teams have refused to sing the national anthem, which has been seen as a sign of support for the protesters.

Iran’s star striker, Sardar Azmoun, has spoken out on Instagram in support of those wanting women’s rights – and others have not celebrated goals but put their hands down in an act of solidarity.

Jahanbakhsh was noncommittal when asked whether his team would celebrate a goal or sing the anthem against England.

“You talk about celebrations, but celebrations are something very personal,” he said. “Every single player has different celebrations. And you ask about the national anthem. That is also something that has to be decided in the team, which we have already talked about. But everybody is only thinking and talking about football.”