Scrutiny on the conduct of Iran's national team, victorious over Wales on Friday, will continue ahead of the decisive clash with the United States will only intensify as its leaders press a crackdown on protests at home.
In a striking U-turn, the Iranian players sung their national anthem ahead of Friday's match against Wales. Their silence when the song was played ahead of Monday's match with England had been seen as a sign of solidarity with the protests.
Meanwhile there is no sign of a slackening of the protests or the crackdown, as Iran prepares for the already politically loaded match on Tuesday against the United States, which Iran's clerical leadership likes to label "the great Satan."
A prominent former international star from the last decade, Voria Ghafouri, was arrested in Iran on Thursday after he backed the protests and condemned the crackdown.
The protest movement that erupted 10 weeks ago after the death of Mahsa Amini who had been arrested by the morality police has created the most delicate of situations for the players who are household names in the football-mad country.
Many supporters of the movement have not forgiven the team for meeting ultra-conservative President Ebrahim Raisi before heading to Doha, with the anthem gesture ahead of the England match doing little to redeem them.
"Mullahs' children" and "A return to factory settings" were some of the terms of abuse being used on social media against the players after they opted to sing the anthem this time.
"Dishonourable mercenaries," tweeted Kasra Aarabi, lead Iran analyst at Tony Blair Institute in London.
There had also been speculation that the Iranian players would not celebrate the goals. But the team erupted into wild celebrations as two late goals were struck against Wales in the final minutes for a 2-0 win.
Former England player and prominent TV pundit Gary Lineker tweeted: "Given the duress Iran's players are probably going through, that's a spectacularly emotional victory."
Maziar Bahari, the founder of the Iran Wire news site, said the players had clearly been pressured into singing the anthem.
"The most half-hearted version of the Islamic Republic's anthem. The players have been threatened that they had to sing the anthem or else," he said.
It is not clear if the timing ahead of the game of the arrest of Ghafouri -- who was picked up after training with his club Thursday -- was intentional on the part of the authorities.
But the player, who is of Kurdish origin, has been one of the most outspoken prominent voices in Iran against the crackdown and particularly in the Kurdish-populated regions of western Iran where activists say dozens have been killed in the past week alone.
In another arrest, authorities also detained Pejman Rahbar, the editor of the widely followed varzesh3.com sports website, reports said.
The state's response to the protests has led to questions over whether the team represents Iran or the regime that has ruled since the Islamic Revolution of 1979 that overthrew the shah. The team is known in Persian as the "Tim Melli", "The National Team."
"Incredibly painful to watch this humiliation of #TeamMelli," wrote the historian Roham Alvandi, associate professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science. "This is how the Islamic republic denies us even the simple joy of supporting our national team on the world stage."
Reports also suggested the Qatari authorities were not allowing some fans to carry alternative Iranian flags into the stadium.
An AFP photographer at the stadium on Friday witnessed security staff confiscating a flag from a fan with the protest slogan "Woman, life, freedom."
The turbulence inside Iran has also proved testing for the team's Portuguese coach Carlos Queiroz, who has sought to argue his team should not step into politics and defend his players.
The vilification of some team members on social media even saw some suggesting the broken nose suffered by goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand was karma for bowing to Raisi in the pre-Doha meeting.
"The players are not our enemies," Queiroz wrote on Instagram this week.
Iran forward Mehdi Taremi denied on Thursday that his team had come under pressure from their government to sing the anthem, saying "I don't like to talk about political issues, but we are not under any pressure."
A video later went viral on social media showing Queiroz gently berating the BBC reporter who had asked Taremi for his views, saying "Why don't you ask [England coach Gareth] Southgate about England and the United States that left Afghanistan?"
© Agence France-Presse
Iran sinks Wales to stay alive
By Jed Court
Iran claimed a 2-0 victory over 10-man Wales on Friday with two goals deep into stoppage time to keep its World Cup campaign alive.
The Iran players, who sang the national anthem before kickoff, sent their thousands of supporters at the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium delirious as they celebrated beating a European team at a World Cup for the first time.
Wales goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey became the first player to be sent off at the Qatar tournament for clattering into Mehdi Taremi late in the game.
Iran, who had earlier twice struck the woodwork, finally broke the deadlock in the 98th minute through substitute Rouzbeh Cheshmi's powerful drive. Ramin Rezaeian clipped in a second on the counterattack three minutes later.
Iran, which would have been eliminated with a defeat, instead climbed to second in Group B behind England, which beat it, 6-2, in its opening game. Victory for Iran on Tuesday in their politically charged clash with the United States would take it into the knockout phase for the first time.
"We need the supporters to support us like always," said Mehdi Taremi. "Even those who are in Iran behind their TV, we need their positive energy and then we will win the game because we have our dream and we want to give that dream a chance."
Wales tumbled to the bottom of the group and will have to defeat England in their final match next week to have any chance of reaching the last 16 in its first World Cup since 1958.
"We're gutted. There is no other way to say it," captain Gareth Bale told the BBC. "We've fought until the last second. It's one of those things. It's difficult to take but we have to recover and go again."
The Iran players opted to sing the national anthem in contrast to their stance before the game against England, when they remained silent in an apparent gesture of solidarity with anti-government protestors. Some Iranian fans were in tears during the anthem.
Wales manager Rob Page elected to start striker Kieffer Moore, whose early volley was parried by Iran goalkeeper Hossein Hosseini.
Iran thought it had taken the lead minutes later but Ali Gholizadeh was clearly offside before he tapped in and the goal was ruled out by VAR.
A cagey game burst into life during a crazy spell shortly after halftime when Sardar Azmoun and Gholizadeh both struck the woodwork within seconds. Rejuvenated Iran suddenly looked like scoring every time they went forward and Ethan Ampadu had to make an excellent block to deny Taremi the opening goal.
Wales had Hennessey to thank for staying on level terms with 17 minutes left, as he stretched to tip Saeid Ezatolahi's low shot around the post.
The game opened up in a frantic final minutes as both sides knew it likely needed more than a draw. Iran was given a huge boost in its push for a winner when Hennessey recklessly charged out of his goal and crashed into Taremi.
Remarkably, Guatemalan referee Mario Escobar only initially booked the goalkeeper, but that was corrected after a VAR review and Hennessey was dismissed in the 86th minute.
Leicester's Danny Ward took his place and quickly saw Torabi's effort fly past his post. But an emotional day for Iran and their fans finished in dramatic fashion when Cheshmi hammered home from the edge of the box and Rezaeian raced clear to chip over Ward.
© Agence France-Presse