Iran captain Ehsan Hajsafi speaks out, Ecuador beat Qatar in opening match, fans, bribery, corruption, beer banned in stadiums

Iran captain Ehsan Hajsafi became the first player from his national team to speak out in support of ongoing anti-government protests amid horrific scenes in the Arab nation.

There have been over two months of protests in Iran after a 22-year-old woman died while in custody of the country’s morality police, with women in particular putting their lives on the line to threaten the Islamic leaders.

That came with questions about whether the Iranian players would speak out, despite the fact that as The Guardian wrote: “There are likely to be consequences, or threats, to their families and loved ones if they speak out against a regime that has been in power for 43 years and is not about to let go quietly.”

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That did not stop Hajsafi from speaking out on Monday.

“They should know that we are with them. And we support them. And we sympathize with them regarding the conditions,” Hajsafi, who plays for AEK Athens, told a news conference.

“We have to accept that the conditions in our country are not right and our people are not happy,” he said. “We are here but it does not mean we should not be their voice or we should not respect them.”

Over 400 protesters including 58 minors have so far been killed in the protests.

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ECUADOR ROASTS QATAR WITH BEER SLEDGES DURING WIN

Qatar and Ecuador fans clashed at the Al Bayt Stadium as the World Cup hosts copped plenty of criticism from the South American supporters over the Middle Eastern nation’s troubled build-up to the major tournament.

The opening match of the tournament – won 2-0 by Ecuador – took place in Al Khor around 50 kilometers outside of Doha.

After a controversial decision ruled out Ecuador captain Enner Valencia’s opening goal inside five minutes, social media footage captured an Ecuador fan making a ‘money’ gesture with his fingers – insinuating that hosts Qatar had bribed referees, just as hosting rights for the tournament itself were won over a decade ago through corrupt practices.

A Qatar fan nearby soon aggressively shouted at the opposition supporter in an angry flashpoint. Fortunately, they made up at halftime.

A Qatar supporter was furious at an Ecuador fans' gestures.
A Qatar supporter was furious at an Ecuador fans’ gestures.Source: Twitter

But it was Qatar’s last-minute decision to ban beer inside stadiums – except for corporate boxes – that drew the strongest reaction from the Ecuador supporters.

Ecuador fans repeatedly chanted “queremos cerveza” (“we want beer”) throughout the match.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the fans in attendance – officially 67,372 – was just how many left before full-time.

After Valencia’s two goals in the first 31 minutes, home fans began to filter out of the stadium. The stream of exiting supporters became a flood in the second half as the home team – the 2019 Asian Cup champions – struggled to lay a glove on Ecuador.

By full-time, the stadium was half empty.

“We have felt supported,” said Qatar coach Felix Sanchez despite the empty seats.

“I hope the people at the next game will be more proud. People know that we can give more.

“The atmosphere was one of great expectation. We are sorry that we could not be part of the party, but we knew that this scenario could happen… We will try to learn.”

But all 67,372 fans went home with a special gift bag to commemorate the occasion (and the pleasure of seeing Morgan Freeman in the opening ceremony), although that may come as scant consolation for Qatar fans given their side’s atrocious performance.

ENGLAND TO TAKE KNEES AFTER FIFA ARMBAND BAN

Gareth Southgate said on Sunday that England will take the knee before their World Cup matches in Qatar to send a strong message of “inclusivity”.

On the eve of England’s Group B opener against Iran in Doha, Southgate once again found himself fielding as many questions about politics as he did about his team’s prospects.

The build-up to the tournament has been dominated by concerns over the Gulf state’s treatment of migrant workers, women and the LGBTQ community.

England did not take the knee — a gesture against racism and other forms of discrimination — in their most recent matches in September.

The gesture has also been scaled back in the Premier League, but Southgate’s players have agreed to repeat it before their World Cup matches.

“We feel it’s a strong statement that will go around the world, to young people in particular, to show that inclusivity is very important,” he said.

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England are one of several European teams who aim to show support for the LGBTQ community.

A number of captains are planning to wear a rainbow armband with the “OneLove” slogan even though FIFA wants skippers to wear different armbands to promote social messages as part of a partnership with United Nations agencies.

It raises the prospect of captain Harry Kane receiving a yellow card immediately after the first whistle of the game.

Negotiations are ongoing, but recent reports state that England will still wear the OneLove armband.

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BELGIUM STAR TO MISS FIRST TWO GAMES

Romelu Lukaku will not play for Belgium at the World Cup until at least their final Group F match against Croatia, a team source told AFP on Sunday.

The forward did not take part in the Red Devils’ first proper training session since they arrived in Qatar on Friday as he continues his recovery from a hamstring injury.

Lukaku is Belgium’s all-time top scorer with 68 goals in 102 appearances and was called up to their World Cup squad despite coach Roberto Martinez admitting he was not fully fit.

“It would be better for us if he was there for the first game (against Canada on Wednesday), but I cannot tell you when he will be back,” Atletico Madrid midfielder Axel Witsel told reporters.

“The most important thing is how he feels. I was in his place in the last European Championship when I came back from an injury and I’m sure we’ll have Romelu back very soon.” Lukaku has endured a difficult past 18 months, moving back to Inter Milan on loan after a dismal season with Chelsea.

However, the 29-year-old has played just twice for Inter since August after first picking up the injury in a 3-1 defeat at Lazio.

Belgium also take on Morocco before meeting 2018 World Cup finalists Croatia at the start of next month as they try to improve on their run to the semi-finals four years ago.

Martinez’s team have long been dubbed the country’s “Golden Generation” but with several among the Spaniard’s core group either in or nearing their 30s, Qatar could be their last chance to be crowned world champions.

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