The Iranian Football Federation has excluded captain Masoud Shojaei for the soccer World Cup qualifiers against South Korea and Syria but denies it is punishment for playing against an Israeli club.
Shojaei and his compatriot Ehsan Haji Safi came in for criticism in Iran when they turned out for their Greek side Panionios in an August 3 home Europa League qualifier against Maccabi Tel Aviv.
Sunday’s squad, announced by Iran’s Portuguese coach Carlos Queiroz on Facebook, included Ehsan Haji Safi but omitted Shojaei.
The initial reaction from Deputy Sports Minister Mohammad Reza Davarzani suggested the pair would both be banned for violating the country’s “red line.” They broke a tradition of the taboo of appearing against Israeli athletes, which Iran interprets as recognition of the Jewish state.
But Iran appeared to walk back a ban after a huge outcry from soccer fans on social media and the launch of an investigation by FIFA, which has strict rules against political interference in national teams.
The ISNA news agency reported that the Iran Football Federation had denied the ban in a letter to FIFA on August 13.
Shojaei, however, did not travel with “Team Melli,” which arrived in South Korea on Saturday, ahead of Thursday’s game.
Queiroz questioned the wisdom of leaving Shojaei behind.
“We have a group of 37 elite players which is the basis for our World Cup call up list, so bringing some younger players reflects our strategy of developing this group,” explained Queiroz, who included two players making their debuts.
But the former Portugal and Real Madrid boss added: “On the other hand, this doesn’t mean we are in the position to leave behind experienced and key players who we are used to having with us.”
Queiroz, who also served as Alex Ferguson’s assistant at Manchester United, concluded: “Only with the timely and correct financial support to implement our ambitious World Cup preparation, and with a powerful sense of tolerance and togetherness will we be able to achieve our goals and dreams in Russia 2018.”
After his controversial appearance against Maccabi Shojaej wrote on Instagram: “My country has always been and will be my priority. I have always tried to work wholeheartedly to be a suitable representative for the country.”
Iran has won six of their first eight World Cup qualifiers to assure its presence in next year’s World Cup finals.