Days after famous footballer Ali Karimi lashed out at Isfahan’s Anti-Vice Headquarters for filing a complaint against him, Iran’s football federation has referred the former football star to a disciplinary committee.
The federation insists it took the measure after Karimi made inappropriate comments during a press conference on February 2, which took place ahead of a game between Sepidrood Rasht, the team he coaches, and Esteghlal Khuzestan. Karimi broke federation rules by deviating from technical matters of the game and launching an attack on Iranian TV’s sports show Program 90, the football federation itself, and the Referees’ Committee.
Although the federation will not have welcomed the criticism or Karimi’s refusal to adhere to the rules, the disciplinary procedure was taken days later, after the football star lashed out at Isfahan’s Anti-Vice Headquarters when they filed complaint against him, and when he further questioned the financial activities of the Iranian football federation and its highest officials. Another piece of evidence cited in the complaint was Karimi’s support for Iranian footballers Masoud Shojaei and Ehsan Hajsafi, who caused controversy when they dared to play for a Greek team against the Israeli team Maccabi in 2017.
Karimi is known for his outspokenness and his attacks on corruption in Iranian football. Writing on Instagram, the football star — known to many as the “Iranian Maradona" — appealed to people he described as being “friends of Mehdi Taj,” the president of the football federation, who he has butted heads with before. He urged them to get a “warrant for his arrest” and threatened to sue them for defamation. “Dear Friends!...I am not going anywhere. Send me a PM [private message] and I will give myself up. No need for you to tire yourself out,” he wrote on Instagram.
According to Voice of America Persian, Isfahan’s morality officials did not file an official legal complaint — but their complaints did constitute a fierce, if informal, warning.
Initially, Iran’s Football Federation confirmed it had nothing to do with the complaint, though it did point out Karimi’s accusations against its head were grounds for legal action. The disciplinary announcement soon followed.
After receiving the original summons from Isfahan’s Anti-Vice Headquarters — its full, more precise name is the Headquarters for the Promotion of Virtue and the Forbidding of Vice — Karimi published more than 50 posts on his Telegram channel. Among other things, he accused the football federation president Mehdi Taj of corrupt commercial deals and of intimidating and threatening national football team players for wearing green wristbands in solidarity with the Green Movement protesters in the aftermath of the disputed 2009 presidential election.
Accused of Possessing an Improper License
But the football federation maintained its original explanation for the disciplinary procedure, accusing Karimi of going against federation rules, and going on to refer to the specific coaching license he had been issued. “Considering that Ali Karimi does not have an A License for coaching and is [only] the coach of Sepidrood team, he is not permitted to participate in press conferences before or after the game,” said Saeed Fattahi, head of Iran’s Persian Gulf Pro League committee, on February 3 [Persian link]. “No coach is allowed to participate in press conferences. Only the league’s head coaches can do that.”
The federation's recent response has successfully barred Karimi from even attending press conferences, though it insists it is not targeting Karimi specifically. “We are after implementing the laws, not after Karimi,” said Fattahi. “Nobody is above the law. Rest assured that from now on only head coaches will be allowed into press conferences.” However, prior to Karimi's recent accusation of corruption in the federation, coaches had been allowed into press briefings, irrespective of what license they held.
After Fattahi’s statements were published, Karimi went on to his Telegram channel to say that he didn’t need press conferences, and that he intended to say whatever he wanted on the instant messaging app instead. Incidentally, Karimi had also questioned Fattahi about his financial deals.
“Come Clean About Salaries”
Karimi’s attacks on the federation follow on from his November 2017 demands for the federation’s most senior officials to divulge the details of their salaries.
On November 11, 2017 Karimi accused the federation of financial corruption and said that its president Mehdi Taj, his deputy Ali Kafashian and the federation’s secretary-general Mohammad Reza Saket go public with their salaries.
Karimi holds legendary status in both Iranian football. Originally from Isfahan, he has played for one of Iran’s biggest teams, Persepolis, as well as for United Arab Emirates’ Shabab Al Ahli and for German teams Bayern Munich and Schalke 04. In addition to his wide-ranging achievements, Karimi was honored throughout his career.
Cyrus the Great as a Weapon
In his recent Instagram attack, Karimi also mocked officials, hinting at their inclination for greed. He reminded them that Cyrus the Great was buried in “just a simple tomb made of stone with no dome with gold and silver.”
Prior to this, Karimi had also been attacked by the Revolutionary Guards’ media for what he had written about Cyrus the Great in the past, leading to Fars News Agencdismissingng him as an “illiterate celebrity” in September 30, 2017.
In response, Karimi posted a picture of picture of Cyrus the Great tomb’s and wrote, “I am grateful to those who did not need me but did not forget me.” He also posted a quotation that he said was from Cyrus: “My son, do good deeds, not evil ones. Humans do not live forever and nothing behooves us more than good deeds.”
Fars News immediately reacted to Ali Karimi’s post about Cyrus the Great. On the its website, Hamzeh Najian attacked sportsmen and actors who comment on political, historical and religious matters. He said there were “two big problems” with Karimi’s Instagram post. “First, the sentence that he posted on the picture not only does not belong to Cyrus, this is a sentence attributed to the late English writer Shakespeare.” Likewise, he said, the other quotation he posted was not from Cyrus, either, but was a “cherished sentence” by Imam Ali.
Fars also reported that people were using the hashtag “#Illiterate_Celebrity” on Twitter to insult and criticize Karimi. Prior to this, Iran Varzeshi, a sports newspaper published by the government, called Karimi a “shallow critic.”
The Significance of Isfahan
“You could have at least told your friends to act in another city,” Karimi wrote on his Telegram channel, obviously addressing Mehdi Taj and criticizing his links to Isfahan’s morality authorities. “I am here to the end.”
Isfahan is the home of Iran’s chief football authorities — the federation’s president Mehdi Taj is originally from there, as is first vice president Ali Kafashian, second vice-president Mahmoud Eslamian and the federation’s secretary-general Mohammad Reza Saket. It’s natural that the local Anti-Vice Headquarters would be intolerant of criticism of some of the city’s most treasured sports authorities.
It’s also important to remember that Mehdi Taj, Mahmoud Eslamian and Mohammad Reza Saket all have a long record of links with the Revolutionary Guards [Persian link].
Taj is Revolutionary Guards veteran, and his unit was Isfahan’s Imam Hossein Corps. During the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, Mahmoud Eslamian was a logistics supervisor assigned to Guards’ encampments and during this time got acquainted with Taj. Mohamad Reza Saket never served at the front but during that decade he was an active member of Isfahan’s Basij, a paramilitary organization that belongs to the Revolutionary Guards.
So the Isfahan complaint against Karimi makes sense, even if Mehdi Taj was not personally involved. The Guards trained Taj as an intelligence operative, and there is no doubt that he has connections to intelligence agencies goes higher than the mid-level ones in Isfahan. “Mr. Taj has connections,” Ali Kafashian, the former president of the football federation, said on live TV in the summer of 2015. “He worked with the Guards. His connections are better than mine. I don’t believe that he is doing security work now, but he has connections with the security people.”
You Know Where to Find Me
“Even if I have only one day to live, I will stand up to you and your gang,” Karimi wrote on his Telegram channel a few minutes after he received the complaint from Isfahan’s Anti-Vice Headquarters. “Mr. Taj, forgive me if, unlike you and your gang, I am not familiar with theft, cronyism and corruption and a thousand other dirty things. For this, I am proud. While we are both alive, rest assured that things will stay this way.” He added that if Mehdi Taj’s friends wanted to find him, he would be practicing with Sepidrood Rasht football team, and further accused Karimi of intimidating journalists and engaging in shady commercial deals.
With his recent activity, Karimi has once again raised questions about the finances of Iran’s Football Federation. He wanted to know: When footballers or clubs are forced to pay fines, where does the money go? What happened to FIFA’s World Cup rewards for the Iranian team?
The latest row could be the start of the most serious round of hostilities between Ali Karimi and Mehdi Taj. Karimi is not prepared to back down, and Taj’s military friends will not leave Ali Karimi, Isfahan’s greatest football hero, alone.