Saman Ghoddos visibly considers his words, but has clearly thought about what to say. The Brentford forward does not want to remain silent on such an important issue. However, Ghoddos’ interests are far greater than making a statement about Qatar’s problems in the way most other World Cup players can.
The 29-year-old knows he will be asked about the political strife in Iran, where he killed hundreds while halting nationwide protests over the death of Mahsa Amini, who was beaten in custody for allegedly violating the rules by state security forces. about mandatory head coverings. Still, he agreed to do an interview because of this, and he shows considerable courage with his comments.
“Everyone wants to see a change,” says Ghoddos. “This is a very easy change. It’s not something special that people want. It’s just freedom and I don’t want to say ‘Yeah, fight for it’ because I don’t think violence is the right way. But something needs to change and it has been going on for a very long time.”
While the lyrics seem simple, they come from an extremely difficult situation, especially due to the heavy focus on this Iranian team. Given that the government has just given the first death sentence over the demonstrations, speaking out can have important consequences. Then there’s the fact that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s state is trying to use the World Cup to present an image of political normality.
Ghoddos still thinks that players “of course” have some responsibilities. He says the team texted about it “almost every day” before meeting this week.
“No one is happy about it,” says Ghoddos. “I don’t want to mix politics with football, but football is coming to the side right now because people are losing their lives fighting for freedom… Obviously a change has to come and it has been going on for a very long time already. We all want change.
“If you think it’s the right thing to do, I think you should because you’re a famous athlete. If you can shed some light on what’s going on, you should do it with or without pressure because it’s the right thing to do.”
It almost feels wrong to discuss football in this context. This is why England’s opening match is one of the most politicized fixtures of this highly politicized World Cup. The UK’s fractious past with Iran fuels political strife, the state’s disputed nation-wide regional alliance, and recent allegations that the Khamenei regime supplied Russia with drones in the Ukraine war.
All of this led to multiple calls for the team to be kicked out of the World Cup. Ghoddos is diplomatic and subtle about it, even if it’s his imagination.
“I’ve read about it and people are asking my opinion on it. I understand what they’re talking about and where they’re coming from. But I don’t know if firing us was the right decision. I don’t know if it’s the right move for me. I don’t know if anything will change because of this. Better to change what the real problem is than to leave football out of the World Cup. This is my opinion.
“Everyone sees what’s going on, it’s not very nice, and if we can shed some light on what’s going on and make a change that way, that would be a good thing.”
Later, there is also a notable comment when the Ghoddos speak of “playing for the people in Iran” and not for the state. Dating back to Argentina 1978 and even Russia 2018, this is where the debates on these issues get very complicated because the football culture of the population will always be different from the ruling powers.
Ghoddos undoubtedly comes from this with a different perspective than most of his teammates. He grew up in Sweden after his parents immigrated and was originally a Swedish international with two caps and a goal. Ghoddos hadn’t even visited Iran until he transitioned in 2017. Still, that didn’t mean he felt any less Iranian. He couldn’t.
“We spoke Iranian and this culture existed in my house. I could never go because every time my family flew there there was an important football game or something like that.
“There are a lot of Iranians in Sweden and in the city of Malmö, where I was born.”
This naturally means that his country has memories of previous World Cup matches, as well as the emotional impact of another most politicized match.
“I was five years old in 1998 but I remember my celebration against the United States,” he says of Iran’s historic 2-1 win. “We always recorded the World Cup and watched it after every school.”
Playing with the Swedish football system meant that, as with most dual nationals, it was natural to accept a call when two friendly matches were requested. If Ghoddos didn’t exactly have any internal debate about his choice, it was Iran coach Carlos Quieroz who offered certainty.
“I was in the team and it was a great honor for me but then I didn’t hear anything from Sweden. I didn’t think I would start. Then I got a call from Carlos Queiroz asking if I wanted to play for Iran. I didn’t think at all and said ‘yes of course’. He said he wouldn’t play with me because he didn’t want to put pressure on me, and then I was stuck in Iran.
He said, ‘I will invite you, you work with us, then you choose the next camp yourself’. For me it was like ‘this is great’. I’ve heard of these players taking a minute [for one country] and then they get stuck, then they can’t change and I really appreciated the way you did it. Then he asked me to play Sweden. It seemed a little late for me now… that’s why I said I wanted to play for Iran. I have made my decision.”
His family encouraged Ghoddos to do only what felt right, as they would be proud no matter what, but when he experienced the backlash from his extended family, his decision proved perfect.
“Every time I go with the national team, they are very happy to be able to play and carry their last name on my back. This is a proud moment for them and it makes me happy.
“I never thought that people in Iran were so fond of football and the kindness they had. It was huge for me.”
He felt even better when he was selected for the 2018 World Cup.
“It was the biggest thing I’ve ever done in my life. I was like, ‘I have to do this again.’ The atmosphere was different. You just feel the energy. Now we’re there, it’s a very special moment for me. I’m very proud. I will try to do my best.
“I try to get my family to come and watch, but flights and hotels are very difficult. There are some rooms we can give them and plane tickets from me. I try to get as many of them as possible because the World Cup is held every four years and you have to be there. My family wasn’t in Russia but my friends came and will talk about it for the rest of their lives, so I try to get as many of my family as possible to come and watch.”
It reminds of the other side of the political use of football, that is, the enjoyment of the public. This is why Ghoddos feels as much of an obligation as of optimism. He believes that Iran can get out of the group for the first time.
“I rate it very highly. Looking at the roster of other World Cups, I think this is the best squad Iran has ever had. The players we have now, Mehdi Taremi is doing well with Porto at Champions League level, same with Sardar Azmoun at Bayer Leverkusen. Okay, maybe before with Ali Daei, Ali Karimi these were outstanding players but not much. Now it feels like we are more, we have more of a team spirit. Same with Brentford. We’re really together and I think you can get through this even if you’re not a good team on paper.
“Of course we are weak against England. This is nothing to hide. I would rather fight from a weak position and achieve something from there.
Manager Queiroz is very knowledgeable about this. Football is not always enjoyable, but effective. Portugal has made Iran an extremely difficult team to play against in the last two World Cups, putting both Spain and Portugal on the brink of elimination in 2018 – while Quieroz’s team finished four points against five – and Argentina. forced me to stop- long-term winner over Lionel Messi in 2014. Monday won’t be all that fun for England.
Iran will be trained very well. Queiroz has been sending players videos of what they’ve been asking for weeks.
“You know what to do when you come in,” says Ghoddos. “He’s very tactical and his message is very clear. Everyone knows their job and he’s trying to get that into your spine. Like if the ball is here, you have to do it – and that’s every day.”
This tactical practice will be reinforced with emotional intensity. The Iranian team doesn’t actually play national music in the dressing room because, as Ghoddos puts it, “better music”. They want to be pumped.
“Right now Stormzy song Mel Made Me Do It,” laughs Ghoddos.
“But making sure the energy doesn’t get to you is very important because when you have a lot of energy it can affect your game. As long as you see it as a normal game, of course you need energy to move to a new level and we will need it but it will be very special because in Iran If we play for people, the energy and level we will help us.”
These last few words are among the most important. Ghoddos sees himself as playing for the people and has the courage to speak for them.