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Will Iran be Banned from the World Cup?

August 13, 2017
9 min read

Iran’s football federation has stated it will not expel two Iranian footballers just days after issuing a statement saying it would.

The announcement came one day after the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) demanded that Iranian officials explain their decision. 

On August 10, Mohammad Reza Davarzani, Iran’s deputy sports minister, announced that two Iranian footballers who defied a ban on competing with Israeli athletes would not be able to play for the national team. He said the players, Ehsan Hajsafi and Masoud Shojaei, had crossed a “red line” and would no longer be entitled to play for Team Melli, the national football team. Prior to this, on August 4, the two athletes, who play for the Greek team Panionios, took the decision to honor their contract and played against Maccabi Tel Aviv. The decision was widely reported in international media, and commanded huge attention on social media platforms.

After officials denied that they said the two footballers would face expulsion, in an apparent bid to hedge his bets, Sports Minister Masoud Soltanifar somewhat contradicted the federation's comments on August 13, saying: “We are waiting to hear all the information and explanations from the two athletes before we make a decision.”

So does the fact that Iran's highest sports officials have done a U-turn on their original decision mean that Iran has successfully avoided being banned from next year’s World Cup?

 

German Media: Another "Football Wikileaks"?

German media have always acted as an early warning system for earthquakes in football. When Italian football was shaken to its foundations by the match-fixing scandal known as Calciopoli, it was the German newspaper Bild that first published hints of it. And it was Deutsche Welle and the magazine Der Spiegel that first broke stories about corruption within the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) and the possibility that Russia and Qatar had paid bribes to host FIFA World Cup competitions. In June, Bild published new evidence about the Qatar bribery case, and the newspaper has rightfully earned the nickname of “Football WikiLeaks.”

When Mohammad Reza Davarzani announced that Hajsafi and Shojaei would be expelled on August 10, international media covered the announcement, though most agencies simply quoted the sports ministry statement along with suspect claims that Iranians would never compete against Israelis of their own free will.

But German media went further. “Iran Suspends Footballers — and FIFA is Silent,” read the headline of a critical piece [German link] by Christoph Becker published in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. “The Foreign Ministry had already demanded that Iranian professionals should contractually ensure they would not compete against competitors from Israel,” he wrote. He went on to demand why FIFA had remained silent. “A logical consequence should be the exclusion [of Iran] from the World Cup in the coming year,” he concluded.

Christoph Becker is one of the best-known sportswriters in Germany. Among his accomplishments is an exposé of financial irregularities and corruption at the International Swimming Federation (FINA).

 

“Blatant Violation”

A day later, on August 11, Becker wrote another article [German link], “No Help from FIFA,” and reported that the football authority had questioned Iran’s Football Federation over the cases of Ehsan Hajsafi and Masoud Shojaei. He also disclosed that three Green Party members of the German parliament — Monika Lazar and Özcan Mutlu from the Bundestag's sports committee and Volker Beck, chairman of the parliamentary group on German-Israeli relations — had sent a letter to FIFA president Gianni Infantino and Reinhard Grindel, president of the German Football Association and a member of the FIFA Council, asking them to look at “Iran’s violation of the principle of international friendship among people” and the “universal spirit of sports.”

The German parliamentarians said Iran’s expulsion of the two Iranian footballers “blatantly violates the spirit” of the FIFA World Cup, and demanded appropriate sanctions against Iran — such as banning the Iranian team from the 2018 World Cup.

On August 11, FIFA demanded that Iran explain its decision to drop the two footballers from the national team. "We are currently monitoring the matter and will request additional information from the Iran Football Federation," said a FIFA spokesperson in an emailed statement to Reuters. "We have no further comment for the time being."

If a country's football federation is suspended, it means that both the national team and its clubs are barred from international competitions. Article 3 of FIFA clearly states: “Discrimination of any kind against a country, private person or group of people on account of race, skin color, ethnic, national or social origin, gender, language, religion, political opinion or any other opinion, wealth, birth or any other status, sexual orientation or any other reason is strictly prohibited and punishable by suspension or expulsion.” 

 

Queiroz to the Rescue?

But if there is any hope for Iranian football, and any way of it being saved from international sanctions, it lies with the national team’s manager, Carlos Queiroz, and not with FIFA or its threats. Queiroz has a long history of battles with Iranian authorities, and a long list of victories against them, and no one in Iran has forgotten this. One victory concerned the case of Mehrdad Pouladi, a midfielder for the national team. After the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, authorities said Pouladi had to return to Iran to serve his national military service. When he failed to do so, Iranian authorities ruled that he would not be allowed to accompany the national football team to the 2015 Asian Cup. Queiroz, however, insisted that his participation was crucial and won the argument. Pouladi was allowed to travel with the team.

In fact, Queiroz has never lost an argument with any figure in Iranian officialdom — not against the president of the football federation or his assistants, not against the officials that interpret for him, and not even against the officials of the sports ministry or the coaches of various football clubs.

But this time, he faces a unique challenge. Competing against Israeli athletes is a red line, and historically Iranian athletes and sports officials have not dared to cross it. So far, Queiroz has been silent about the fate of Masoud Shojaei and Ehsan Hajsafi. Usually, he tends to express himself freely on his personal Facebook page but he has said nothing about the scandal concerning the two captains of his team. In part, his silence is probably a response to a direct order from Iran’s Football Federation. But, judging from the past, he might have another reason as well. He has used silence as a tactic before. 

In December 2016, Masoud Shojaei gave an interview [Persian Link] to Mehdi Rostampour, a Denmark-based reporter for Radio Farda, the Persian-language service of Radio Free Europe. In the interview, Shojaei criticized financial and moral corruption in Iranian sports. But he was also critical about Iranian society more broadly, taking issue with the exclusion of women from football stadiums and the treatment of refugees. When the disciplinary committee of the Iranian Football Federation expressed its intention to summon the footballer to answer for his interview, Queiroz saved Shojaei from having to appear before the committee because he remained quiet on the matter. He did the same for Sardar Azmoun and Ashkan Dejagah after the disciplinary committee planned to summon them because of their tattoos. So this time, he probably hopes to solve the problem with silence too, and by staying away from the media.

 

Could Iran Avoid Trouble by Using an “Alternative” Team?

The football federation suggested an initial solution to the current problem: To leave out all the core members of the national team in the remaining qualifying games for the 2018 World Cup. Iran has already qualified for the tournament, so the forthcoming matches against South Korea and Syria are merely pro forma. The football federation is currently trying to convince Queiroz to leave Shojaei and Hajsafi out of the next lineup, as well as the “legionnaires” — footballers who play professionally outside Iran. This includes Sardar Azmoun, Saeed Ezatolahi, Morteza Pour Ali Ganji, Milad Mohammadi, Ramin Rezaian, Reza Ghoochannejhad and Ashkan Dejagah.

But the football federation is not only worried about footballers who play abroad. Some members of Iran’s national team have also appealed to Queiroz, telling him that if Shojaei and Hajsafi are not included in the lineup, they would consider taking themselves out too. However, the chances that they would actually refuse to play for Iran are very low, not least because Queiroz has shown that he does not take kindly to threats. In the past, he has not responded well when players — among them Mojtaba Jabbari, Mehdi Rahmati, Hadi Aghili and Ali Karimi —have threatened to temporarily withdraw themselves from the national team. 

There is a second solution to the problem, no doubt the one Queiroz prefers: For deputy sports minister Mohammad Reza Davarzani to modify his stance towards Shojaei and Hajsafi. But before he can do that, Iran’s Football Federation must provide FIFA with some answers, and this will not be an easy task.

The ban on Iranians competing with Israeli athletes was imposed after the victory of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Before that, Iran and Israel had competed against each other numerous times in several sports. The last time that an athlete from the Islamic Republic competed against an Israeli athlete was in 1983, when Iranian Greco-Roman wrestler Bijan Seifkhani went to the mat against Robinson Konashvili from Israel (and won). Authorities introduced the ban immediately afterward. 

Until 2006, Iran was explicit about its reason for the ban — it was to “support the Palestinian people.” But that year, the International Olympics Committee (IOC) updated the Olympic charter, making it clear that if an athlete refused to compete against other athletes on political, religious, racial or ethnic grounds, that athlete would be banned from international competitions. Furthermore, the federation or the Olympics committee of that country would be fined and/or would be banned from competitions. Since then, the standard excuse Iranian athletes use to avoid competing against Israelis has been injury.

What Will Queiroz Do?

Until now, for the most part, Iranian athletes, the football federation included, have done their best to follow the rules, or at least to appear as if they are doing so. But since Shojaei and Hajsafi’s decision to play against an Israeli team, things have changed. Their “transgression” left no doubt that Iranian sports officials would find themselves in an awkward situation. Before Davarzani publicly announced that "Shojaei and Hajsafi have no place in Iran's national football team anymore because they crossed the country's red line,” there were hopes for a solution. But now, Iran is in danger of being excluded from the 2018 FIFA world cup.

FIFA has asked Iran for an unequivocal answer, just as German newspaper Bild had predicted. On August 31, Iran is scheduled to host to a match against South Korea. Throughout his years as head coach for Iran, Queiroz has never had an easy time with the South Korean team, and a win is by no means a definite outcome. Will he exclude his key players for a match against one of the team’s trickiest opponents?  South Korea must defeat Iran if it is to qualify for the World Cup. But at the moment, Iran is enjoying a winning streak — it has won all its qualifying games. Will Queiroz give this up? All eyes are on him. For him, dreams of the World Cup have turned into an unexpected nightmare.

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