Mehdi Taj has caused a sensation by registering in the Iranian Football Federation’s presidential election – for a second time. Formerly president of the Federation from 2016 to 2019, Tahj is one of the most divisive figures in the history of Iranian sports. His would-be vice presidents were named as Mehdi Mohammadnabi and Mansour Ghanbarzadeh.
In a past life Taj was an intelligence commander in the IRGC, based in Isfahan. Due to his closeness to Mahmoud Eslamian, a former provincial governor, steel magnate and ex-member of the board at the Federation, he ended up managing two steel factories: Mobarakeh and Zob Ahan. From there he switched to football, from which his legacy was disastrous contracts and debts amounting to millions of euros.
During his premiership Taj “donated” the right to broadcast all Iranian football matches to the state-controlled IRIB. In exchange for this expensive gift he secured the permanent loyalty of the IRIB and, IranWire later learned, the right to appoint its sports reporters. Other journalists were threatened with imprisonment if they criticized the Federation or its activities.
Taj also worked hand in glove with the IRGC’s Intelligence Organization to detain women and girls who tried to enter the country’s stadiums to watch football matches. When FIFA’s competition committee called on Mehdi Mahdavikia, a retired Iranian footballer, to testify on the matter, Taj presented himself instead and falsely claimed Mahdavikia had not wanted to take part.
Toward the end of his tenure as president Taj secretly registered a private, parallel entity called the Football Federation Financial Group (FFFG), in a bid to siphon off the profits of Iranian football and lock out any would-be competitors. Had the firm been activated, it would have been illegal according to both FIFA’s and Iran’s own rules.
In August 2020, the Federation undertook to pay $8.3m to Marc Wilmots, a former manager of the Iranian national team contracted by Mehdi Taj, who had been in the country for fewer than 40 days before a row broke out over what Wilmots called “serious contractual violations”. FIFA accepted the claim in part. Later it emerged that due to its heavy debts, some of the Federation’s properties were being confiscated by the Social Security Investment Company, which paid Wilmots’s wages.
In 2019 Taj’s son Ali was also accused of financial crime. The details were never made public but that August, then-judiciary spokesman Gholamhossein Mohseni-Ejei told reportters: “The son of one of the heads of sports federations has had some problems, over which a case has been filed. For us, his father's resignation or non-resignation will have no effect on judicial proceedings." Shortly after that, however, the case was dropped. Taj’s close relationship to then-chief justice Ebrahim Raisi, which goes back to the 1980s, was assumed to be the cause.
Iranian media outlets have been strikingly unanimous in their condemnation of Taj returning to the fold this week. Mehr News Agency wrote: “Where are the culprits of the disastrous Wilmots contract coming from?" and the IRGC-affiliated Tasnim demanded to know: "How is the signatory of the disgraceful Wilmots contract supposed to be the savior of Iranian football?" Tabnak, another news provider close to the Revolutionary Guards, suggested his serving another term would be against the rules while IRNA News Agency described him as “returning to the scene of the crime”.
Despite his closeness to Ebrahim Raisi, the stance taken by Iran’s official news outlets suggests there will have to be a change in the government’s position toward him. For his part Taj was confident, telling reporters close to him that the “necessary coordination” for his standing had already been carried out.