Sardar Azmoun, the striker of the Iranian national football team, scored perhaps one of the most important goals of his life on Sunday evening. But there was no ball in sight, and this decisive move took place off the pitch.
Instead, writing from a hotel room in the small town of Wussendorf near Vienna, the star player of Team Melli published a post on Instagram.
“Because of the national team rules,” he wrote, “we couldn’t say anything until the [World Cup training] camp was over. But I couldn’t bear it anymore.
“At worst I’ll be dismissed from the national team. No problem. I’d sacrifice that for one hair on the heads of Iranian women. This story will not be deleted. They can do whatever they want. Shame on you for killing so easily; long live Iranian women."
Azmoun’s mutiny against the media diktats of the Iranian Football Federation – and by extension the government of Iran – did not go unnoticed. Varzesh Media, a sports news agency based inside Iran, posted its own message.
“These past few days, like all of Iran, we were too heartbroken to write about sports,” the platform wrote. “Football? What’s all the fuss about when these people pay such a high price for their most basic rights?
“Sardar Azmoun breaking rank was one of the bright lights of these nights... He reminds us that there are those still worthy of wearing the title ‘national’. We will never forget your goal, Mr. Azmoun.”
Two of Azmoun’s teammates, goalkeeper Alireza Biranvand and Majid Hosseini, also posted pictures and messages on Instagram in support of the demonstrations in Iran. But just hours later, seemingly under pressure, they had deleted them.
Today, Sardar Azmoun’s Instagram page with its 4.9m followers had been scrubbed clean of all posts and stories, going back eight and a half years.
What Happens Now?
Football is deeply politicized in Iran, and political interference in sports has been the norm since not long after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Top athletes are expected to follow the regime’s line on all matters, including those unrelated to sport – or at the very least, to stay silent about them.
One detail of note on Sunday was that minutes after Azmoun published his missive on Instagram, the official page of the Iranian national football team “unfollowed” his account. It was curious behavior for a brand, and for Iranian observers signaled one thing only: that Azmoun was being dropped from the national team.
Azmoun was just 19 years old when he was invited in 2014 by head coach Carlos Queiroz to join the Team Melli training camp. He became a permanent player in 2015 and today is probably the most famous current member of the team internationally.
He has not once lost his place in the squad, despite the tumult that has engulfed Team Melli since 2019, and even after the recent change of manager. Azmoun was close to former head coach Dragan Skočić and stuck by him during a player revolt this summer. Despite this, after being dramatically reinstated in early September, head coach Carlos Queiroz kept him in the starting line-up for the friendly between Iran and Uruguay last Friday.
Would FIFA Take a Stand?
For Queiroz to remove one of his most powerful players at this time, for non-technical reasons, would be a clear and definitive example of political intervention in sports of the kind FIFA has historically stood against in favor of players’ right to free speech.
In 2020, players at Liverpool FC, Dortmund, and all the Bundesliga and La Liga teams paid tribute on the pitch at different points to the Black Lives Matter movement after the killing of George Floyd in the US. At the time, FIFA urged club managers to use “common sense” and refrain from penalizing them.
However, FIFA has also historically been soft on the Iranian Football Federation. The Islamic Republic’s well-documented policy of barring women from football stadiums in Iran, going back decades, has elicited nothing more than “strongly-worded letters” from the world football body, despite sex discrimination being a ban-worthy offence in its own charter.
FIFA has also ignored the fact that multiple clubs in Iran are owned by state entities, and has so far not addressed multiple financial corruption cases within the Federation under the leadership of newly-reinstated boss Mehdi Taj. Taj is a well-connected figure, with links to the IRGC and Iran’s media and security institutions, and is now back in the driving seat ahead of one of the most important contests for Iran in years.
On occasion FIFA has intervened when individual players’ careers are at stake, notably when two Iranian footballers signed to Panionios, Masoud Shojaei and Ehsan Hajsafi, played Israel’s Maccabi FC in the 2017 Europa League. Iranian athletes are barred from competing against Israelis in any discipline and the Ministry of Sports sought to have the pair sacked from Team Melli.
After receiving a letter from German MPs about the furore, FIFA did intervene. After a long period of opaque public statements, the Federation finally gave a written guarantee that both players would be invited to the next training camp.
Azmoun’s intervention on Sunday, however, came in the midst of an explosive political atmosphere in Iran, at a time when the Islamic Republic is rallying in the face of one of the most sustained existential challenges it has seen in years. Based on the regime’s track record of intolerance to criticism it seems hard to imagine how he could keep his job. Based on FIFA’s track record, it is harder to say.