Wales coach Robert Page has admitted his side have fallen far below the standards they set for themselves as a defeat to Iran put them on the brink of World Cup elimination.
Page refused to use Wayne Hennessey’s red card – only the third for a goalkeeper in World Cup finals history – as an excuse for defeat and said Carlos Queiroz’s team was worth winning.
Iran hit both posts and conceded a goal before finally taking the lead in the 98th minute with a long-range strike from substitute Roozbeh Cheshmi, with Ramin Rezaeian adding second three minutes later.
Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey, so often the architects of Wales’ success over the years, have been disappointed and now need a victory over England next Tuesday to have any hope of reaching the knockout stages.
Page even seemed to refer to the England game as Wales’ “last” game of the tournament, highlighting how difficult the road ahead is for the Dragons from here.
“It’s hard to take,” Page said. “I told them before every game, ‘Go and show the world what you show us every day,’ and that’s not a true reflection of this team.
“They got their real rewards today, they deserved this defeat. We fell well below the standards that ensured us participation in the World Cup, if we met them, everything would be fine. And if you do it in the best competitions, you get punished.
Asked about playing in England, Page said: “We want to end the competition on a high level. We are unable to go further, but we want to end with a good performance and a win. We are weak at the moment but we will pick them up tomorrow to end a tough match.
Hennessey initially received a yellow card after running out of the goal and hitting Porto’s Iranian striker Mehdi Taremi, but referee Mario Escobar was briefed on reviewing the decision and returned from the monitor brandishing a red card.
The challenge was reckless and high, whether or not there was cover behind it.
Iran’s victory means their match against the United States – which would always be a highly charged one given the political history between the nations – could now be an all-time winner for a place in the round of 16.
Queiroz felt there was too much external pressure on his players ahead of the match against England.
The team has become a political lightning rod for the riots in Iran, with those who are pro-regime criticizing them for not singing the national anthem before the game in England and protesters attacking them for not doing enough to draw attention to plight of women in this country.
The Portuguese coach criticized the Iranians in the stands during the game against England who booed his team, but after the game against Wales he was much more flattering to the fans.
“The crowd deserves a special word today,” he said. “It was joy, it was happiness, it was drama, I love the game when that happens.”
He praised the character of his team, adding: “It was really very emotional as we bounced back from a difficult situation.”
Cheshmi admitted that the first days of the World Cup were extremely difficult for the team.
“I should say if the pressure was football related it would be acceptable but if the players were under unfair pressure it wouldn’t be okay,” he said through an interpreter.
“The players were suddenly judged and given pressure not related to football. The whole team helped each other. I scored a goal but the team did their job.