This week the sports periodical Iran Varzeshi (Iran Sport) “announced” that Mehdi Taj, the newly re-elected president of the Iranian Football Federation, and Carlos Queiroz, the former head coach of the Iranian national team from 2011 to 2019, had reached an agreement on Queiroz’s return to Iran. In a video call, Iran Varzeshi claimed, the pair had set a date for Queiroz to come back to Team Melli –no later than the end of this week – and agreed a contract value of $900,000 (the terms were not mentioned).
This dramatic turn of events comes fewer than 80 days before Iran is due to compete in the 2022 Qatar World Cup. It follows a period of internal chaos at the Federation and fallout among star players over the future of current coach Dragan Skočić. The latter appears to still be ongoing: several times in the past few days, the Federation’s vice-president, Mehdi Mohammadnabi has publicly denied that Skočić will be replaced before the tournament. So, who’s right?
Gauging the Veracity of Iran Varzeshi’s Report
A report of this gravity appearing in Iran Varzeshi is significant due to the publication’s close relationship with Mehdi Taj. It stood by him through the final year of his previous tenure at the helm of the Football Federation, when he was accused of grift, wasting Federation funds and irregular procurement in a string of public blunders.
Ali Javadi, the current editor of Iran Varzeshi, is a relative of Ali Larijani, an influential former speaker of the Iranian parliament who was formerly head of Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting. Under his leadership, Larijani was made head of the sports divisions of several state-owned TV channels.
He then became the editor-in-chief of Khabar Varzeshi (Sports News) and of the sports page of the major national newspaper Jam-e Jam. As such he has a long pedigree in regime-aligned sports reporting, but also in sticking the knife into perceived opponents.
In 2018, in a report published on the front page of Jam-e Jam under his byline, Javadi blamed Mehdi Rostampour – an independent sports journalist living in Europe – for “abducting” Iranian athletes who emigrated by choice due to the stifling politicization of sports in Iran. Separately he has claimed Rostampour was responsible for luring the sports commentator Mazdak Mirzaei away from Iran; Mirzaei had moved to the UK in summer 2019 to take up a job with Iran International.
Then, also in 2018, Javadi was appointed director of public relations at the Football Federation, on the decision of Mehdi Taj. He is understood to have been one of Taj’s closest allies within the Federation and apparently retained an advisory position after Taj’s stormy first tenure as president came to an end.
All this suggests Iran Varzeshi would be the first to know if there had been a decision reached behind closed doors, something Taj is already notorious for doing. On the other hand, the publication may have intentionally jumped the gun in order to pressure Skočić into stepping down. Either way, the report was quoted by Iranian state media outlets and by some international sports news websites, all before an official announcement from the Federation, Team Melli or Queiroz himself.
In its report on Monday, Iran Varzeshi estimated the value of Carlos Queiroz's new contract at $900,000. The agreed duration, however, was not specified. The Qatar World Cup is due to run from November 20 to December 18, but one of the most important other contests to Iran is scheduled for six months later: namely the Asian cup, from June 16 to July 23, 2023.
Queiroz, a former Manchester United assistant and Real Madrid coach, has previously dismissed the idea of being retained for contests like the Asian Cup. Earlier this year he rejected an invitation from Iraqi football bosses to take over management of their team after a World Cup elimination, saying: “I prefer not to waste my time on continental competitions."
Yesterday some Iranian media outlets suggested this meant the $900,000 would cover only the period until the end of the World Cup – meaning its annual value would have stood at more than $4m. Iran Varzeshi had claimed that Queiroz was giving Taj, who has a history of agreeing disastrous contracts with managers without board approval, a “special discount” for his presence in Iran. Again, Queiroz has yet to publicly say anything on the matter.
The Vice President’s Denial
Mehdi Taj was re-elected last Tuesday on a single-issue campaign: if made president again, he promised, he would bring Carlos Queiroz back to Iran. In the past few days, however, he has refused to comment further on the matter.
Meanwhile his vice-president Mehdi Mohammadnabi has said the precise opposite, telling Iranian media on two separate occasions that Dragan Skočić will indeed still be in post for the World Cup.
The likely reason for this denial is the heavy penalties an already cash-strapped Federation – its head offices in Tehran were seized last May by the state pension provider over money owed due to the last messy contract with ex-head coach Marc Wilmots – is likely to incur if the Croatian coach’s contract is severed before time.
Indeed, according to FIFA rules, federations are barred from negotiating with other would-be head coaches before terminating an ongoing contract. Taj’s intention must be to covertly reach an agreement with Queiroz, then go forward to terminate the contract with Skočić – or else commit a violation on the eve of the World Cup.
If anything, then, Iran Varzeshi's report will strengthen Dragan Skočić’s hand in the event of a future dispute. In the background, its other likely effect will be to further disorientate and divide both the players and Skočić himself, after months of turmoil, and ahead of one of the most important tournaments of all their careers to date.