Sardar Azmoun

For England’s stars, the pressure of competing in the World Cup is largely limited to winning or losing. Yet for Sardar Azmoun, the event has brought far greater scrutiny.

The ‘Iranian Messi’ hopes to recover from a calf injury in time for Monday’s game. If fit, he will give the England defence a big test.

That Azmoun, who plays for Bayer Leverkusen, is in the squad is controversial.

He risked the wrath of Iran’s authoritarian regime for opining about Mahsa Amini, the woman who died in police custody after being arrested for not wearing the hijab.

Protests followed and by the start of this month there had been a reported 304 deaths after a security crackdown.

Azmoun said: ‘At worst I’ll be dismissed from the national team. No problem. I’d sacrifice that for one hair on the heads of Iranian women.

‘This story will not be deleted. They can do what they want. Shame on you for killing so easily, long live Iranian women.’

There were suggestions the Iranian authorities wanted Azmoun dropped yet when the squad was named, he was in it.

Manager Carlos Queiroz was combative when asked: ‘Are you OK representing a country like Iran that represses the rights of women?’

He retorted: ‘You should think about what happened with the immigrants in England also.

‘Players are free to protest as they would if they were from any other country. Everybody has the right to express themselves.

‘Footballers elsewhere are bending their knee and some people agree, some don’t. In Iran it’s exactly the same.’

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