HONG KONG (Reuters) - Iran’s soccer players have nothing to fear from anti-government protests in Hong Kong, said the head coach of the city’s representative team, despite an unsuccessful bid by the visitors to play Tuesday’s World Cup qualifier in a neutral venue.
Last week, FIFA and the Asian Football Confederation turned down a request from the Football Federation of the Islamic Republic of Iran to move the game outside Hong Kong due to the protests that have hit the city over the past three months.
But Hong Kong coach Mixu Paatelainen stressed the visitors should not be affected during their stay in the Asian financial hub.
“One thing I know is that Hong Kong is a safe place for any team to come and play,” said the former Dundee United and Bolton Wanderers striker.
“Protesters don’t come to protest against these teams who come here to play sport. There’s no problem at all.
“I know that the Iran team will be safe and they can prepare here and there’s no problem at all.
“I’m aware of the protests, but we don’t pay any attention to those things. We prepare for the task in hand and put the political issues aside,” he said.
Games involving the Hong Kong team have been a focal point for protests against the Chinese government in the past, with FIFA fining the Hong Kong Football Association in early 2016 after fans jeered the Chinese national anthem.
That, though, did not deter fans from continuing to protest, with further abuse directed at the anthem at subsequent matches.
Fans also protested against their government during Manchester City’s friendly match against Hong Kong club side Kitchee in July and further protests are expected on Tuesday at the game at Hong Kong Stadium.
Editing by Robert Birsel