Rarely, if ever, have questions about protest dominated the preface to a World Cup match quite so much as when Iran and Wales got down to talking about a clash on which so much rests for both countries.
To watch Iran coach Carlos Queiroz confront a BBC Persia journalist who had raised such an issue revealed his veneer of calm on the subject to be tissue thin, despite an impressive, statesmanlike half-hour discussing how his team can put the nightmare of England behind them.
‘Great teams know how to rebound. What is important is the day after and the day after that,’ he said.
Gareth Bale and Rob Page fielded multiple questions about protests in their press conference
Gareth Bale and Rob Page fielded multiple questions about protest, too, and though Wales’ calm and classy defiance of Qatar’s blanket ban on rainbows has left England trailing in their wake, both held fast to a resolve not to create a sideshow or a saga.
They gave the sense that Germany’s experience on Wednesday — covering their mouths in protest for the team photo before losing to Japan — showed how gestures can come back to bite you.
Bale said: ‘When one team tries to do something and the result doesn’t go the right way, they get criticised for not concentrating on the football.’
Page said the issue of Welsh fans having rainbow bucket hats confiscated before Monday’s game against the USA was in the hands of the Welsh government.
Wales will take on Iran in their second group game after drawing against the USA on Monday
Bale scored a penalty in the 82nd minute of Wales’ clash with the USA to claim a 1-1 draw
Actions spoke louder than words, with rainbow coloured corner flags at the team’s Al Saad Sports Club training ground. The FAW said on Thursday that the hats would not be prohibited inside any World Cup stadium now.
Bale checked his watch before sitting down to talk and you sensed that he, more than anyone, was shutting down the sideshows. He even interpreted a question about Wales winning the group as a booby trap. ‘I know you are trying to get me to say something about England,’ he said.
Has-beens threw the grenades. Sven Goran Eriksson declared that England’s bench was ‘better than most of the players in Wales’. Wales might counter that more British TV viewers watched their game against USA on Monday than saw England’s against Iran: 9.4million to 7.4m.
Page and Bale held fast to a resolve not to create a sideshow from their press conference
Both gave the sense that Germany’s experience this week — covering their mouths in protest for the team photo before losing to Japan — showed how gestures can come back to bite you
But bragging rights can wait until the two nations collide on Tuesday. There is a purity about this occasion, with the UK morning kick-off leading many Welsh schools to suspend classes and let pupils watch the team.
‘If I was one of the teachers I would let them all watch the game,’ grinned Bale. ‘I hope they do. I think like I’ve said before it’s a historical moment.
‘Some of the schools and parents of kids that I know all want to watch the game, but don’t want to take them off school. So I think a lot of schools will put the game on for them to cheer us on and get behind us. It will maybe be a bit of a history lesson.’
The good news is that Joe Allen has passed a fitness test and is in contention, having not played for two months. His capacity to break the lines was sorely missed against the USA.
Queiroz was frustrated that a BBC Persia reporter asked striker Mehdi Taremi about protests in the country over women’s rights, after the death of young woman Mahsa Amini last week
Starting on Friday seems a big ask, especially as it is all or nothing — the last crusade — for many of this Wales generation. Allen will arrive sooner, rather than later however, if Wales are struggling to break down Iran.
‘Hopefully he can come on or start and he will do what Joe Allen does best, and cover every blade of grass,’ Bale said. ‘We hope he has a few miles left to go.’
This is a balancing act for Page, who is likely to stick with the formation which dominated USA in Monday’s second half, and start with target man Kieffer Moore. Wales need finishing power to enhance their chances of qualification, which may hinge on goal difference. But they have to maintain some degree of caution.
‘We won’t just look at the England game and think it is going to be a walkover against Iran because England beat them 6-2,’ Bale said. ‘We won’t get sucked into that. It will be a difficult game. We will give everything and so will they.’
Iranian fans and players have made their feelings known at the Qatar World Cup tournament
Bale did not dodge a question about being forbidden from wearing a OneLove armband. ‘I know people have said we should have just worn it but I would have been sent off after about 25 minutes,’ he said.
‘Of course we support it but we are here to play football at the same time. Just by not wearing the armband does not mean we don’t support it.’
He did the best he could with questions of the Iranian players’ protest, saying. ‘They know as footballers that they have a big platform to create awareness. They have their beliefs. It is difficult to comment on. I’m not a politician.’
And then he was gone, minefields cleared, mind clear, ready for a day of huge significance.