Alireza Jahanbakhsh has accused the English media of trying to “destabilise” Iran’s World Cup by asking questions surrounding protests back at home.
The Iran captain believes the tactic is part of a wider English campaign to undermine their Group B opponents before they play each other in their World Cup opener on Monday.
Plenty of Iranian athletes have highlighted the protests in Iran after Mahsa Amini, 22, died in police custody in September after she was arrested for not appropriately wearing a headscarf.
The incident led to a brutal crackdown, in which at least 348 people were killed, over 15,000 people arrested, and four protesters were sentenced to death.
“I’m not surprised you are asking this question,” Jahanbakhsh replied when he was asked about the topic. “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.
“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.”
Jahanbakhsh said he wanted to keep the focus on football.
“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 explained.
“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.”
In the past month, a handful of Iran’s national sports teams have refused to sing the national anthem at fixtures and events.
The football team has been joined by beach football, basketball and water polo sides, and is seen as a sign of support for the protestors.
“You ask about the national anthem. That is also something that has to be decided in the team, which we have already talked about,” Jahanbakhsh responded when asked if the team will sing the national anthem on Monday.
“But everybody is only thinking and talking about football.”
Iran will begin their World Cup in Qatar with a tough Group B clash against Gareth Southgate’s England on Monday at Khalifa International Stadium.