Iranian football competitions have been canceled — not because of worries about the spread of coronavirus in the country, not because of fears that the lives of players, coaches and referees are in jeopardy, and not even because the Ministry of Sports or the National Headquarters to Fight Coronavirus have decided that it was wise to do so — but because Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates decided to protect the lives of their own citizens.
“To protect the well-being of players, coaches, organizers and media representatives, all football club competitions for the Pro League, 1st Division, League 2 and League 3 have been canceled,” declared the Football League Organization’s official website on Wednesday, March 4.
When proposals to cancel football events in Iran were put forward, the League Organization was the plan’s main opponent. Even after players and coaches protested against Pro League competitions going ahead without the presence of spectators because they believed that they would be risking coronavirus infection, Soheil Mehdi, acting president of the organization, insisted that there were no plans to postpone the league’s competitions.
After his announcement, in an interview with the Iranian state TV, Pejman Nouri, CEO of Malavan Bandar Anzali FC, said that he had been told by sports minister Masoud Soltanifar that he had tried to cancel football competitions but “higher-ups” had prohibited him from doing so.
It is unlikely that by these “higher-ups” Soltanifar meant the government. Tehran province’s security council and the security councils of the cities of Rasht and Bandar Anzali in Gilan, a province badly hit by the coronavirus epidemic, had requested in late February that all sports competitions in the province be canceled. But these requests were rejected by institutions that have no official authority over football in Iran.
The Iranian Football Federation canceled the games for the 22nd week of the Pro League competitions and matches planned for the first week in March between lower league clubs only after Sepahan FC denied reports that six of its footballers were infected by coronavirus, a number of Malavan players reported that some of them were infected and Esteghlal FC announced that it would not continue to compete in Pro League competitions because the team was fearful of catching the virus.
Despite this, the federation said nothing specific about competitions in the coming weeks. But the federation’s announcement did say that decisions would depend on the spread of coronavirus across Iran and would be made by the National Headquarters to Fight Coronavirus at the appropriate time.
Saudi Propaganda Scarier than Coronavirus
Earlier, the “higher-ups” had told managers of Sepahan FC that if Pro League competitions were not held, it would provide an opportunity for Saudi Arabia to disseminate anti-Islamic Republic propaganda. This claim was made by Masoud Tabesh, former CEO of Sepahan FC, in a TV interview following a meeting with the Security Council of Isfahan Province.
But as coronavirus slowly spread across Iran, Pro League competitions were canceled for one week only, while matches went ahead for the following two weeks, albeit without spectators.
During the time that Ebrahim Shakouri, acting secretary general of Iran’s Football Federation, was visiting Switzerland and trying to convince international football body FIFA that elections for the presidency of the federation should be postponed — as was requested by the outgoing president Mehdi Taj — institutions that had nothing to do with football took decisions about Pro League competitions. These institutions included the National Headquarters to Fight Coronavirus and the Revolutionary Guards’ Intelligence Organization, both of which did not allow matches to be canceled in any province for two whole weeks.
Now, however, all football matches in Iran have been canceled until at least April 2. And the Football League Organization has also announced that the schedule for competitions after that date will be released later.
But what is shocking and sad is that Iran rescinded its decision to hold Pro League competitions not because of the coronavirus epidemic in the country but because Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are calling for a cancelation of all sporting competitions in eastern Asia.
According to the Dubai newspaper Al Bayan, Rashid Al Noaimi, acting president of UAE’s Football Federation, is working with Saudi Arabia’s Football Federation to persuade the heads of FIFA and the Asian Football Confederation to cancel all international football competitions in western Asia, including FIFA qualifying games and Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Champions League competitions. Al Noaimi told the newspaper that no UAE player, coach or referee would be allowed to travel to other countries to take part in competitions, or even for recreation.
“Representatives from west Asia would ask for the cancelation of all World Cup qualifying games in an emergency AFC meeting that is to be hosted by Doha and Dubai,” reported the website for Doha Sports Stadium. The report names UAE as being the strongest campaigner for cancelations among west Asian members of AFC because of concern about the spread of coronavirus.
While, according to the British newspaper the Daily Mail, the Japanese government is prepared to lose £11 billion if it cancels the 2020 Tokyo Olympics to prevent the further spread of coronavirus, the Iranian Sports Ministry told the “higher-ups” that football competitions in the country must be canceled only after it learned that Saudi Arabia and UAE are trying to cancel all international football competitions in west Asia.
Nevertheless, the management of Persepolis FC, which is currently top of Iran’s Pro League, still objects to this decision. On Wednesday, March 5, Persepolis’ Telegram channel claimed that the cancelation of the competition only benefits clubs that have “out-of-action” players. In other words, the club wants to become the champion —even it costs fans and the players their lives.
Thanks to efforts by Iran’s southern neighbors, Pro League competitions are suspended until April 2. But what guarantee is there that these competitions will not resume after that? It does not appear that Iran is ready to learn anything from Japan when it comes to saving lives.
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