Iran denies soccer players who faced Israelis banned

In letter to governing body FIFA, Iranian officials refute announcement that two members of national squad were booted for playing against Maccabi Tel Aviv

Iranian soccer player Ehsan Haji Safi, number 28, seen in a game between the Greek club Panionios and Maccabi Tel Aviv on August 4, 2017. (Screen capture: YouTube)
Iranian soccer player Ehsan Haji Safi, number 28, seen in a game between the Greek club Panionios and Maccabi Tel Aviv on August 4, 2017. (Screen capture: YouTube)

Iranian sports officials told the world soccer governing body that it did not ban two players from its national team for playing in a European league game against an Israeli squad, amid mounting anger over the apparent punishment.

In a letter drafted to be sent to FIFA, Iran’s soccer authority denied an earlier announcement by the country’s deputy minister for sport that the two had been cut from the team, the semi-official Iranian Student News Agency reported Sunday.

FIFA on Saturday asked for clarifications on the fate of the players amid reports that they were banned for taking part in the recent match, which also drew anger in Iran.

It was not clear at the time if the letter from the Iranian Football Association had already been sent to FIFA.

There was no immediate response from the world soccer body.

The two players, Masoud Shojaei, 33, the captain of the national team, and Ehsan Haji Safi, 27, one of Iran’s most promising players, were apparently banned Thursday as punishment for playing for their Greek club team, Panionios, in a home game last week in Athens against Maccabi Tel Aviv from Israel, the New York Times reported.

“It is certain that Masoud Shojaei and Ehsan Haji Safi will never be invited to join the national football team because they violated the red line,” Mohammad Reza Davarzani, Iran’s deputy sports minister said Thursday on Iranian state television.

The move prompted thousands of Persian-speakers, including Iranians living in the Islamic Republic and beyond, to call on the FIFA soccer federation to impose sanctions on Iran for the move, according to Omid Memarian, a New York-based journalist.

The Iranian government does not recognize the State of Israel, and has no official ties with the country, which Iranian officials repeatedly have vowed to destroy. A longstanding rule by the country’s Islamic government prohibits Iranian athletes from competing against Israeli athletes in any contest or tournament, including the Olympics.

Critics in Iran say the ban on competing against Israel has hurt the development of Iranian athletes, forcing them to forfeit or pull out of competitions in which they might face Israeli athletes. But hard-liners in the republic insist that ideology trumps sports.

Last year, the Iranian Olympian Alireza Khojasteh withdrew from the judo competition at the Rio Games, citing personal reasons. It is widely thought that he did so to avoid the possibility of facing an Israeli opponent.

Iran’s parliament, in a special meeting of the foreign policy committee on Sunday, had already denounced the two soccer players.

“Agreeing to play in a game against athletes of a regime that has given humanity nothing other than occupation, murder, aggression and betrayal is disrespectful of the rights of thousands of martyrs and those displaced and affected by the occupying Zionist regime,” the spokesman for the committee, Hossein Naghavi-Hosseini, told the Mehr news agency.

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