“I need a good jacuzzi,” Carlos Queiroz said, breaking into a smile as he reflected on one of the more eccentric Iran celebrations inside this thudding stadium.
When the final whistle sounded in the 102nd minute, the Iran striker Sardar Azmoun grabbed Queiroz by the throat in unbridled joy before quickly recalibrating, instead pinching his manager’s cheeks. Then in the unfettered aftermath he attempted to take a piggyback on the Portuguese coach. By this point Azmoun, wearing a substitute’s bib having been replaced, had long been lost in the delirium of two second-half stoppage-time goals propelling his country to a warranted and yet unfathomably late win over Wales.
This was not how Wales envisaged a first World Cup since 1958 mapping out. For so long it seemed they would somehow avoid losing a match that had become the epitome of living dangerously well before Wayne Hennessey was sent off for inadvertently poleaxing Mehdi Taremi on 86 minutes, a moment that had shades of Harald Schumacher’s wild clotheslining of Patrick Battiston at the 1982 World Cup in Spain.
Ali Gholizadeh had a first-half goal disallowed for offside and in the second half Azmoun and Gholizadeh rattled opposite posts within seconds of one another. The fourth official, Maguette Ndiaye, indicated nine minutes of stoppage time and in the penultimate minute Wales eventually cracked.
The substitute Roozbeh Cheshmi roamed forward and curled a powerful right-foot shot into the far corner from the edge of the box and Ramin Rezaeian put the gloss on a victory three minutes later. Defeat all but kills Wales’s hopes of progressing to the last 16.
As Iran’s players rejoiced, Gareth Bale stood forlorn in an empty half vacated by Queiroz’s players, Kieffer Moore kicked at his heels and the substitute Brennan Johnson crouched on his haunches. The restart was a formality. Iran soon set off on a victory lap as Wales’s players lay floored. Wales have waited 64 years for this World Cup and although it pained Rob Page to admit the Red Wall have had little to shout about in Qatar their fans offered Iran’s players a warm reception as they went full circle. “I love this game when things are this way,” Queiroz said.
This was always going to be a fraught occasion and emotions were amplified before kick-off when Iran’s players broke their silence by singing their national anthem. Taremi had said that none of the squad were under pressure to sing despite the threat of reprisals at home but the anguish on the faces of some players as they mumbled the words half-heartedly spoke volumes. In the stands, Iran’s boisterous support made clear their disdain for their government, jeering their own players. Tears streamed down one woman’s cheeks and a man carrying an Iran flag appeared inconsolable.
Queiroz’s warning that Iran’s World Cup would begin in earnest against Wales after a humiliating start against England no longer looks quite such a sanguine take and, when Cheshmi struck, Wales could not argue it had not been coming. They had been clinging on and Bale’s hands were clasped behind his back in the box, frantically trying to prevent the possibility of giving away a penalty as Iran peppered the Wales goal after Hennessey’s dismissal. Iran made five changes from Monday and were unrecognisable; Wales painfully disjointed.
Wales avoided going a goal down when Gholizadeh’s first-half goal was ruled offside but Wales wilted in the heat of battle. They were overrun in midfield and failed to stop the bleeding. Time and again Ethan Ampadu was exposed at the base of midfield, with Aaron Ramsey and Harry Wilson offering little support. Moore forced Hossein Hosseini into an instinctive save with a dozen minutes on the clock after meeting Connor Roberts’ perfect cross but, that aside, Wales’s attacks were forgettable. Ben Davies drew gasps after driving a shot over via the hand of Hosseini, who was deputising for Alireza Beiranvand after the No 1 was ruled out under Fifa concussion protocols.
Things went from bad to worse when Hennessey rushed out to confront Taremi as the forward latched on to an incisive through ball and left him in a heap. The referee, Mario Escobar, initially handed Hennessey a yellow card but a VAR review upgraded the punishment to a red. Moments earlier Hennessey had gone low to his right to superbly deny Saeid Ezatolahi but the 35-year-old will remember this game for the wrong reasons. He became only the third goalkeeper to be sent off at a World Cup. Tony Roberts, the Wales goalkeeper coach, booted a water bottle in frustration as Escobar delved into his back pocket.
Joe Allen entered as a late substitute for his first World Cup appearance but his attempt to block Cheshmi’s shot was in vain after his poor clearance as the substitute’s right-foot shot, via the substitute goalkeeper Danny Ward’s fingertips, nestled in the bottom corner. On the touchline Page, arms folded, was unmoved.
Iran’s bench emptied on to the pitch – a mass outpouring of emotion – and a repeat of those scenes soon followed. Allen failed to trap the ball and Iran shifted the ball infield with purpose, presenting Rezaeian with the chance to beat Ward. Davies, perhaps Wales’s best performer, made a desperate attempt to intervene but Rezaeian displayed great composure to lift the ball over Ward. It may take some time for Wales to get back up again.