Iranian Soccer Body Says Star Players Not Banned for Playing Against Israeli Team
“No Decision” Ruling Issued Following Social Media Public Outcry
After days of public outcry over an Iranian official’s declaration that two national soccer players were banned from the national team for playing against an Israeli team, Iran’s soccer federation announced it has made no official decision.
Banning the players, who played against the Israeli team while employed by the national soccer team of Greece, would have been a violation of the world soccer governing body FIFA’s regulations.
On August 13, the Football Federation Islamic Republic of Iran
sent a letter to FIFA stating that the players, Masoud Shojaei and Ehsan Hajsafi, had not been banned, according to a report by the state-funded Iranian Students’ News Agency (ISNA). The text of the letter has not been released.
Statements by Iran’s Deputy Sports Minister Mohammad Reza Davarzani suggesting the two players had been banned for playing against the Israeli team led to a flurry of tweets as Iranians came to their defense and demanded that FIFA investigate the ban.
A Twitter storm was launched using the hashtag #NoBan4ourplayers, with nearly 50,000 tweets from more than 4,000 users—most originating from Iran—urging the government to allow the players to return to their national team. The data was compiled by CHRI using social media analytics software.
“We are currently monitoring the matter and will request additional information from the Iran Football Federation,” said a FIFA spokesperson on August 12 in response to the outcry on social media.
“Masoud Shojaei and Ehsan Hajsafi will certainly never be invited to join the national football team because they violated the red line,” said Davarzani on August 10.
He was reacting to Shojaei and Hajsafi’s decision to honor their contract with the Greek team Panionios to play against Maccabi Tel Aviv, an Israeli team, in Athens on August 3.
By doing so, they broke the Islamic Republic of Iran’s policy of non-engagement with Israeli athletes in international competitions. Tehran broke ties with Tel Aviv after the 1979 revolution and does not recognize the state of Israel.
“The decision-making authorities in such matters are the Sports Ministry and the Iran Football Federation, not team head coach Mr. Carlos Queiroz,” Davarzadi added. “The Portuguese coach has worked hard for football [soccer] in our country, but as valuable as that is, no one has the right to cross the Islamic Republic of Iran’s red lines.”
The Iranian football federation meanwhile acknowledged that Shojaei and Hajsafi abided by Iran’s state ban on engaging with Israelis when the players refused to travel with the Greek team to play in Tel Aviv.
“Despite numerous negotiations with the two football [soccer] players and all the pressure that the Greek club had placed on them, the pair refused to appear in the first-leg match held in the occupied Palestinian lands [Israel] and accepted the club’s financial penalty,” said the federation’s statement on August 4.
“Nevertheless, the Football Federation and the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRIFF) censures their participation in last night’s second-leg match, while investigating all aspects of the issue,” added the statement.
The Basij Athletes Organization, a subsidiary of the hardline Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), also condemned the two national team players.
“By stomping on the long-standing rule of not facing athletes from the Zionist usurping state, the two football players have only added their name to the shameful list of those who have condoned the persistent injustice of child killers,” said the organization in a statement on August 4.
Meanwhile a number of Iranian soccer players and coaches sided with Shojaei and Hajsafi.
“Our people are fair and will never forget the sacrifices made by the sons of our nation and the glory they have brought for us,” said former national team coach Mohammad Mayeli Kohan in a post on Instagram on August 4.
“We must give them credit for refusing to travel to the occupied territories and understand that they didn’t play wearing the Iranian national team jerseys,” said Kohan, adding that the players were just honoring their contract. “Let’s not destroy our talented players with hasty and biased judgments.”
Former national soccer star Mehdi Mahdavikia also criticized Iranian officials for mixing foreign policy with sports.
“The times you made the people of Iran happy will never be forgotten,” said Mahdavikia on Instagram on August 11.
“I hope for the day when politics will take its hands off sports and action will replace preaching,” he added. “Instead of worrying about events in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, I wish we would pay serious attention to sports and build a few respectable stadiums and try to overcome poverty, addiction and unemployment.”
Iranian sports commentator Mehdi Rostampour said the deputy minister’s comments were unlawful and called on President Hassan Rouhani to prevent Iran from being sanctioned for violating international football rules.
“If the two national team players have indeed been banned, the Sports Ministry and the football federation are obliged to officially announce the decision,” said Rostampour in his post on the Telegram messaging network on August 10.
“Based on which article of the law have Masoud Shojaei and Ehsan Hajsafi been banned?” he added. “Has the Disciplinary Committee issued a verdict? Our we shooting ourselves in the foot or fighting Israel? Does Mr. Davarzani have the authority to disqualify athletes?
“Mr. Rouhani, don’t allow Davarzani, this unprincipled ‘man of principles,’ to push Iranian football [soccer] to the edge of the abyss,” he said.
FIFA looks down on mixing politics with the sport it governs. In November 2006, it suspended Iran from all international competitions for nearly a month due to “government interference in football matters and violation of Article 17 of the FIFA Statutes” during former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s first term.
FIFA lifted the suspension following “cooperative negotiations” with Iranian officials.
When Iranian athletes previously refused to compete with Israelis in international competitions, it was assumed that they did so based on their political beliefs or because they were submitting to state pressure. However, recent comments made by Iranian officials suggest that some athletes may have also been offered financial incentives.
Alireza Alipour, the head of Iran’s Committee for the Protection the Honor of the Football League, told an Iranian sports newspaper that the government is willing to compensate soccer stars if they are fined or dropped from their team for not following state policy over team policy.
“We were ready to repair all the psychological and financial aspects of the case from any fines or the cancellation of their contract,” Alipour told the Goal newspaper on August 8.
“In addition to paying their fines, we would have given them a reward. In case they were cut from the team, we were prepared to pay them ($245,000 USD) each,” he said. “Even the municipality officials had agreed to our proposal to give the players homes in a good neighborhood of Tehran.”
In February 2017, the Iranian Chess Federation expelled Borna Derakhshani from the national team for competing against an Israeli opponent at an international event in Gibraltar. Her sister was also banned from representing Iran over her refusal to wear a hijab at the same competition.
However, the announcement that Shojaei and Hajsafi would be banned resulted in a much larger scale of public outcry due to the players’ star status.
Shojaei, the team captain, has been a fan favorite not only for his skills on the field, but also for publicly supporting the pro-democracy movement that swept the country after disputed presidential election of 2009. He has also called for an end to the ban on women attending sports arenas.