Two prominent Iranian footballers, Mehrdad Minavand and Ali Ansarian, have died of Covid-19 seven days apart. Mehrdad Minavand passed away on January 27, 2021 and Ali Ansarian died yesterday on February 3.

Both were players in Persepolis Football Club, which competes in the Persian Gulf Pro League. In 2001 and 2009, Persepolis was recognized by the Asian Football Confederation as the most popular club in Asia, with more than 30 million fans in Iran and overseas.

Before joining Persepolis, Mehrdad Minavand played for clubs in Austria and Belgium from 1998 to 2002, also representing Iran at the 1998 Fifa World Cup. His death at the age of 45 was met with grief and tributes from around the world.

FIFA president Giannni Infantino said in a statement: “Words seem inadequate to express the sadness I feel. Minavand’s legacy and his achievements, especially his personality, his work ethics and his human qualities, will not be forgotten, and he will be truly missed.”

"On behalf of the international football community, I wish to extend our deepest sympathy to the Iran Football Federation, and to his family, friends and loved ones.”

The Austrian Sturm Graz club also expressed its condolences to fans in Persian and German from its Twitter account. Mehrdad Minavand had famously played in the Champions League against Real Madrid and Manchester United for Sturm Graz.

In the 1998 World Cup in France he was recognized as being one of the most influential players in the historic Iran-US match, later dubbed the “Game of the Century”.

By comparison, the defender Ali Ansarian, 43, had a less prominent presence in the Iranian national team. But he was a well-known figure in Iranian club football and had helped Persepolis win three championships and the Iranian Hazfi Cup.

Both sportsmen had retired some years ago and tried to move into the arts and media. Mehrdad Minavand launched a short-lived singing career in 2006 and appeared in several television serials before ultimately deciding to become a sports presenter on social media.

Recently he had also hosted the "Persepolis App" program, which was launched by the club's sole sponsor since 2019, the Atieh Dadeh Pardaz Company. This firm is reportedly one the subdivisions of the Execution of Imam Khomeini's Order Headquarters, a vast parastatal conglomerate controlled by the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic.

Ali Ansarian, however, pursued art more seriously after the twilight of his footballing career. He and Pejman Jamshidi, another ex-star club, became famous faces in cinema and television. For his part, Ansarian starred in some 11 movies, nine TV series and three home network series. He also hosted four special television programs as a presenter.

One performance for which he is likely to be remembered was in the program Zabiwaka: the title derives from a Russian word meaning "be lucky." Ansarian appeared onscreen, joking with Iranian singers now living in exile in the West who have become known as "Los Angeles singers." Broadcasting of the program was stopped after two weeks due to it having received some 140 warnings from the IRIB. Meanwhile, two films, Emad and Tuba Romanticism, in which Ali Ansarian plays the secondary male role, are currently being screened at the Fajr Film Festival in Iran.

After the deaths of Minavand and Ansarian, many Iranian social media users blamed Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the leader of the Islamic Republic, for their deaths because of the irresponsible way the government handled the outbreak of coronavirus in the country. Khamenei had used a speech on February 22, 2020 to call coronavirus a “lie” propagated by “enemies”, insisting they had no reason to fear. Shortly after that, he disappeared from public life almost entirely.

More recently the Supreme Leader has also banned the importation of American- and British-made vaccines into Iran, speaking in a televised address on January 8, 2021.

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