Footballing legend Ali Karimi has always been fearless. But in recent months, he has taken on a new major challenge: Speaking out against corruption in Iran’s Football Federation.

On November 11, Karimi accused the federation of financial corruption and demanded that the federation’s president Mehdi Taj, his deputy Ali Kafashian and the federation’s secretary-general Mohammad Reza Saket go public with their salaries. Soon after the federation’s response  — it denied there was any corruption within its ranks or the sponsors affiliated with it — on November 17, Karimi published photographs on the popular messaging app Telegram showing the gift cards sponsors had given to the federation president.

Karimi is a legend in both Iranian and Asian football. He has played for Iran’s star team Persepolis, United Arab Emirates’ Shabab Al Ahli and for German teams Bayern Munich and Schalke 04. During his footballing career, he was honored with almost all the awards that Asian football could bestow. He was the three-time champion of Iran’s Pro League, champion in Iran’s Hazfi (“Elimination”) Cup, champion of the UAE Pro League, champion of Bundesliga (“Federal League”) while playing for Bayern Munich, champion of DFB-Pokal (German Cup), top goal scorer for the UAE League, top goal scorer for the Asian Cup in 2004, champion at the 2002 Asian Games in Busan, third place winner at the 2004 Asian Cup, and the best Asian Cup player in 2004. In 2006, he played for Iran’s national team at the FIFA World Cup in Germany. For years he has been known by the nickname “Asia’s Maradona,”, after the famous retired Argentinian football star, who is widely acknowledged to be one of the greatest players of all time. 

But what has always distinguished Ali Karimi from other Iranian football stars is his sharp tongue and his outspokenness. In the aftermath of the disputed 2009 presidential election, he went out on to the field to play for the Iranian National Football team wearing green wristbands, showing his support for the people who were protesting against the official results of the election. And he has used his Instagram page to criticize the government for its terrible handling of the disastrous environmental problems in the province of Khuzestan or the country’s poor economic conditions. In 2017’s presidential election, Karimi officially threw support behind Hassan Rouhani, though he refused to go to the incumbent president’s campaign headquarters.

To understand Karimi better, it’s instructive to go back to 2004 and Tehran’s Olympics Hotel. At that time, Branko Ivanković was the head coach of Iran’s National Football Team and Karimi was basking in the glory of the latest Iranian triumphs in Asian competitions. Branko invited a group of reporters to meet with him at his hotel —  an odd decision, as it was not something he normally liked to do. But an hour later, the reason became clear. The head coach had vacated the hotel lobby at Ali Karimi’s request, because Karimi had scheduled a noon-time meeting in the lobby with a mother and a daughter. He had promised to provide the daughter’s dowry so she could marry.

 

Uncultured, Vulgar and “Empty”

Karimi has always been caught in a battle of contradictory perceptions. In addition to the Maradona comparisons, he has also gone by the nickname of the “Robin Hood” of Iranian football, not only because of his acts of charity but also because he pulled no punches in speaking up against the football’s powers-that-be and their mafia. His critics have retaliated with force, branding him “uncultured” for the comments he made. “Against Ali Karimi’s Shallow Critiques” ran one editorial headline in the sports edition of the official newspaper Iran in early 2017. The writer lashed out at Karimi for the low quality of his writing, dismissing his critiques as empty and vulgar. Karimi, the article said, was only an empty façade.

But when it comes down to it, this is all his critics can really say about him. They have nothing else to throw at him. Over the two decades of his professional life in Iranian, German and UAE football, Karimi had every chance and was presented with every temptation to be led astray — be it financial or moral corruption — but although so many others gave in, he didn’t. Corruption in Iranian football is so pervasive that often, nobody even bothers to point a finger at the corrupt. But close examination of Karimi’s professional life shows him to be one of the cleanest figures in Iranian football. And this makes him a reliable critic of the corruption that is so rife. 

Occasionally, Karimi has changed tack, and his confrontations with the Iranian Football Federation have been more measured and indirect and less obvious outright attacks. At the same time, his criticisms have always had definite impact. But his most recent accusations of corruption at the Football Federation, which began in the summer, are certainly direct, and have given the Revolutionary Guards and media outlets close to it and the government further fuel against him. 

 

Proud to Be Uncultured

Instead of dismissing claims from both the government-owned press and the hardliner media, that he is “uncultured,” Karimi has embraced the label. “I am proud to be uncultured,” he recently wrote on his Instagram page. “What about you?” The comments were a direct response to the Revolutionary Guards’ Fars News Agency, which had accused him of being illiterate after he posted something praising Cyrus the Great, the pre-Islamic Persian hero the Islamic Republic has tried to eradicate from Iranian identity.

Unlike many Iranian celebrities in cinema and sports, Karimi has never passed on control of his social networking accounts to professional writers. He believes that he must write for the common people — or, as his critics call it, in an “uncultured” style.

In response to Karimi’s demand that top football federation officials reveal their salaries, the federation claimed that Karimi’s accusation were baseless. It issued a statement saying there were no irregularities in financial contracts with sponsors and that the head of the federation does not receive a salary. But then came the photos Karimi published on Telegram, showing that the federation president had in fact received gift cards from sponsors. Just as when the legendary footballer was on the field and coaches of opposing teams knew to instruct their players to not foul against him — because the more he was attacked, the stronger he became — the federation has should have learned over the years not too push him too far. But this does not appear to be the case.

 

No Airtime

Over the last month, Karimi has challenged the federation to television debates three times, but state-run television has refused to respond to him directly. On November 23, Hossein Agha Zamani, the sports director of Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting’s Channel 3, told a newspaper: “We will not provide Karimi with a debate program.” This could be seen as at least partial evidence that Karimi’s claim that the federation’s Mehdi Taj has prevented a TV interview with Karimi in which he criticized football federation from being broadcast again.

Football Federation head Mehdi Taj tries to wield his power from behind the scenes; after all, he is not the famous one. But he undoubtedly has power: in recent weeks Taj has tried to dangle permits for travelling to Russia for the 2018 World Cup in front of reporters, not as a reward but as a threat.

In response, Karimi has turned to his Instagram account and his Telegram channel, essentially turning them into his own media outlet, and using the “uncultured” and “illiterate” style for which he is now known. “Mr. Taj!” he announced. “You want to appeal to this or that person to prevent the rebroadcast of my interview? You are so impotent that you don’t know that all social networks [have shown it].” He added that the interview would not necessarily attract huge attention from being broadcast on  an outlet that  “15 per cent of viewers do not watch.”

By 15 percent, of course, Karimi was referring to the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB). For years, Karimi has shown little interest in giving interviews to IRIB’s radio and television networks. In 2015, Adel Farsipour, the producer of Navad, Iran’s most-watched TV show, spent more than three months trying to convince Karimi to give him a 15-minute interview. Karimi refused, until he gave in on his birthday and arrived at Olympics Hotel, where he sat in front of the cameras for an interview with Adel Ferdosipour, the show’s most popular host, who, on November 8, had surprised Karimi by buying him a birthday cake.

But now the situation has changed. things have turned topsy-turvy. The man IRIB once earnestly courted to give an interview is now being spurned by one of its sports directors. Why?

Common Interests

IRIB is standing by the football federation because it wants something from the federation. IRIB and the federation have been entangled in a dispute over broadcast rights to Iran Pro League football matches, and in recent months this imbroglio has turned into a joke. The federation has demanded an astronomical 250 billion tomans, or more than $70 million for the rights, but IRIB has balked at the figure and has pushed for more lenient terms. So this is the real reason the IRIB’s sports director has refused to offer Karimi an opportunity for a broadcast debate.

Navad is the same program that claims it has cleaned the “dirties” out of Iranian football — yet in the last three weeks, it has not given even a second of airtime to Karimi. While the Pro League broke for vacation, the host Adel Ferdosipour dedicated six hours of Navad to talk about magic in Iranian football, as well as a range of secondary off-season issues and interviews, but Karimi was nowhere to be seen. In fact, it appears that Ferdosipour is giving Karimi the same treatment he gave star player Masoud Shojaei after he played against the Israeli team Maccabi as part of the Greek team Panionios. On that occasion, Navad blocked all news about Shojaei.

Ali Karimi responded to sports director Hossein Agha Zamani on his Telegram channel, using his outspoken and “uncultured” style. “First,” he wrote, “your hosts have been begging me for years to come to your shows and my answers clearly show that I have no enthusiasm for doing it. Second, if I talked about debates, I did it with full knowledge that Taj and his friends would not accept it. Third, I did receive the [negative] answer that the host of your respected TV show sent me about a debate on corruption. Fourth, I prefer to say what I have to say on social networks that have global audiences in the millions.”

But the controversy has shed a light on other divisions in Iran regarding corruption in football. Although IRIB has boycotted Karimi, on November 22, Mizan, the Iranian judiciary’s news agency, talked to Karimi about his accusations against the Football Federation.

Karimi told Mizan about the federation’s role in the loss of 69 billion tomans, or close to $20 million, of a former sponsors’ money to football clubs. He said the federation pressures players and coaches who are owed money to accept less than the amount that they had been promised. And he did not leave the TV host Adel Ferdosipour unscathed, either. “Ferdosipour did some shows about sorcery in Iranian football, a few shows about [the Italian brand] Givova team uniforms and a few shows about ticket sales contracts,” said Karimi, “but in which show did he question or criticize Mr. Taj [over the $20 million loss]?”

In recent days, Karimi has posted photographs on his Telegram channel of bank cards, each worth 500 thousand tomans or around $140, that have been confidentially given to the football federation’s president. He also claimed that Carlos Queiroz, Head Coach of Iran’s National Football Team, has “emotional” ties to one of his assistants who has never been a football coach in his life. Karimi published pictures of this assistant on his Telegram channel, proof that many years ago the assistant had been a swimmer and a fencer, but not a football coach.

Karimi said he had also been given access to a case file and a report about the football federation that had been prepared by the Ministry of Sports’ Supervisory Board but had then been shelved at the request of Mohammad Reza Davarzani, the Deputy Sports Minister.

If nothing else, the information that Karimi has published in recent weeks show that the football legend has deep connections inside the football federation, the national football team, football clubs and the Sports Ministry itself. This makes him a dangerous person. After every disclosure, he threatens to return with new material, and he never disappoints. IRIB has boycotted him and the football federation gives him the silent treatment, but some of his colleagues are standing by him.

For instance, Ali Daei, former football star and the world's top scorer, has traditionally always been at odds with Karimi, but now, without naming him, Daei has given his support for the fight corruption against in Iranian football.

And Khodadad Azizi, the former striker with Iran’s National Football Team and FC Cologne, has supported Karimi, and has happily mentioned his name. “I have always believed that you cannot find a more truthful person in football than Karimi,” said Azizi. “He is now telling the truth about dirt in football and everybody knows that he is telling the truth. I am standing by him. But I think that if I sit next to him then nothing will remain of Iran’s football.”

Mohammad Khakpour, the former captain of Iran’s National Football Team, was always known for his calm and reserve but he has also been willing to talk about Karimi and his anti-corruption campaign. “I do not consider myself an expert,” he said. “But many people without résumés have come and have taken over football. And nobody asks them where they come from and why. I only know that what Karimi says is the absolute truth. I stand with Karimi and Khodadad, too.”

No matter what, IRIB has put Karimi on its blacklist. Once it worked hard for months to secure a 15-minute interview with him, but today, Agha Zamani boycotts  him. Contrary to appearances, IRIB and Iran’s Football Federation have common interests, and Karimi is posing a direct and hostile threat to them.

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