Iranians rage at banning of soccer stars who played against Israel

Thousands of Persian speakers take to social media to urge football umbrella FIFA to censure Iran’s own national team over the spat

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)

Thousands of speakers of Persian appealed on social media to the world soccer federation to punish Iran for its banning of two athletes on the national soccer team from playing for their country over their participating in a match against Israelis.

The players, Masoud Shojaei, 33, the captain of the national team, and Ehsan Haji Safi, 27, one of Iran’s most promising players, were banned Thursday 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 speakers of Persian, 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.

On Twitter, under the hashtag #NoBan4OurPlayers, a user under the handle of Ajib Zade wrote that “players should be free to choose who to play against.”

But Vali Nasr, a well-known Iran-born Middle East analyst and scholar, argued the Iranian players were actually bound contractually to play against the Israeli athletes as part of their engagement for the Greek team, and therefore should not be punished by Iran. “Professional soccer players are not sovereign actors but employees of their clubs,” he wrote on Twitter.

Mahbod Ba, a Twitter user described as a Tehran-based art scholar, was among thousands that tagged FIFA on the social network requesting it “ban the Iranian national team” in response to the ban imposed on the two soccer stars.

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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