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British media, online trolls join forces to demoralize Team Melli ahead of World Cup

Iran's players gather in a huddle during a training session at the Al-Rayyan training facility in Doha on November 18, 2022, ahead of the Qatar 2022 World Cup. (Photo by AFP)

British media outlets have in recent days grilled several members of the Iranian national football team about the recent nationwide riots in Iran, in an act the players described as a “mental game” aimed at disheartening the team ahead of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

The latest such question came on Friday when a British reporter sought an answer from captain Karim Ansarifard. Responding gracefully, the 32-year-old player said he is in Doha for his national “duty” and will “do anything to make Iranian people happy.” He also called on the British media to refrain from twisting his words and writing something other than what he actually says in the press conference.

British media’s ‘mental game’

Meanwhile, Ansarifard said he strongly defends Alireza Jahanbakhsh for his comments in Thursday’s press conference. Jahanbakhsh had said British media were playing a “mental game” to distract Iranian players ahead of their debut against England on November 21.   

In a press conference that appeared to be turning into an interrogation, Jahanbakhsh was also asked to comment on the riots and how they had affected the team in the buildup to the tournament, to which he said the focus of the team will be on the games rather than political issues.

“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.”

He then said it was “easy to play the mental game, ask questions about what’s going on here, there or whatever. But we are four days from playing one of the biggest games of our lives. All of us will be focusing on that game.”

Team Melli fighting psychological wars

The Iranian national team, also known as Team Melli, has been under a huge media pressure campaign in recent weeks, especially from London-based Persian outlets, including the Saudi-funded Iran International and Manoto, with the former being recently designated by Iran as a “terrorist organization” over its role in instigating the violent riots in the country.

Prior to the national team’s departure to attend the World Cup, the team had been the target of unsuccessful campaigns launched by anti-Iran lobbies around the world, which attempted in vain to have them banned from the event.

On social media, countless bots and fake accounts have been harassing Team Melli in recent days, hurling insults and death threats at them while trying to shame them out of playing for their country’s national team.

‘Think about what happened in your country’

British media outlets have also been piling on the aggressive pressure campaign, trying to politicize football ahead of the Monday game between Iran and England.

“Are you OK representing a country like Iran at this World Cup that represses the rights of women?” British outlet Sky News asked Iran’s head coach Carlos Queiroz at a press conference in Doha, Qatar, on Tuesday.

However, after finding out that the question was asked by a reporter from the British outlet, the experienced Portuguese coach said, “How much you pay me to answer that question?”

“How much you pay me?” he repeated, sarcastically, before telling the reporter to “Think about what happened in your country with immigration.”

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