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Sports

Why Going to the World Cup Could End Badly for the Islamic Republic

October 25, 2022
Payam Younesipour
4 min read
Some in Iran’s football community believe the main reason for the support given by Gianni Infantino, FIFA’s president, to Mehdi Taj, President of the Football Federation Islamic Republic of Iran, is directly related to the next year’s FIFA elections
Some in Iran’s football community believe the main reason for the support given by Gianni Infantino, FIFA’s president, to Mehdi Taj, President of the Football Federation Islamic Republic of Iran, is directly related to the next year’s FIFA elections

UK Labour Party MP and former Foreign Office minister Chris Bryant has told Telegraph Sport that Iran should be thrown out of the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Speaking on October 17, Bryant, who chairs the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Russia, said any country found to have “provided military support” for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine should be barred from participating in world sport, referring to military equipment including Shahed drones.

Iranian activists called on world soccer's governing body the following day to kick Iran out of the World Cup in Qatar in November and suspend the Iranian Football Federation in response to the Islamic Republic's brutality during recent anti-government protests. The activists said Iran’s brutality and violence toward its own people has reached a tipping point, and they demanded that FIFA firmly disassociate itself from this.

In the end, however, the International Football Federation did not include this request on its agenda.

Why is FIFA so unwilling to remove Iran from the upcoming World Cup due to start on November 20 in Qatar?

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Can the President of FIFA Decide on His Own What to do With Iran?

Some in Iran’s football community believe the main reason for the support given by Gianni Infantino, FIFA’s president, to Mehdi Taj, President of the Football Federation Islamic Republic of Iran, is directly related to the next year’s FIFA elections.

Taj, who has come to football from the Revolutionary Guards’ Intelligence Organization is also vice president of Asian Football Confederation (AFC). Before Infantino had even declared his candidacy, AFC announced its support for him on October 18. Since Iran spearheaded the formation of AFC in 2014, candidates for various FIFA offices have been eager to woo the heads of Iran’s Football Federation.

FIFA has closed its eyes to violations of its charter by the Islamic Republic and other issues during these years, including the banning of women from stadiums during football matches, extensive financial corruption by Taj, the systematic interference of politics in sports, and the federation’s cooperation with the regime in suppressing athletes.

Infantino’s support for Taj in recent years is undeniable but it is not up to FIFA’s president alone to decide whether a team remains in international competitions or is kicked out - or whether a national football federation is suspended or not. The most he can do is convince other high-level officials to delay sending the case against a government or a federation to the FIFA Council, the main decision-making body of the organization in the intervals of FIFA Congress.

The Islamic Republic’s Response to Calls to Remove Iran from the World Cup

Iran’s Football Federation has not taken the threat that it might be barred from the 2022 World Cup very seriously. A few hours before the FIFA Council meeting on October 20, Taj announced that FIFA “has no plans to exclude Iran’s National Football Team.” The council had published its agenda on FIFA’s official website and there was no mention of eliminating Iran from the World Cup.

Media outlets affiliated with the regime did not pay much attention to the calls to bar Iran from the World Cup either. For example, the newspaper Kayhan, whose editor-in-chief is appointed by the office of the Supreme Leader, never mentioned these calls until FIFA Council’s agenda was published - and even then, only in passing.

If Iran’s national football team does go to the World Cup, the consequences could be serious.

Iran played two friendly games with Senegal and Uruguay in the Austrian town of St. Polten in late September, but Iranian state TV broadcasted the games without the background sound from the stadium, fearing that protesters would grasp the opportunity to chant slogans against the Islamic Republic.

The presence of Iran’s football team at the World Cup could turn this internationally popular event into a new opportunity for protesters against the Islamic Republic, both inside and outside stadiums.

FIFA previously allowed footballers at international games to enter the field with symbols of support for the LGBT+ community. Harry Kane, captain of the English national football team, has already announced that he will enter the field during World Cup competitions with a rainbow armband.

There can be no doubt that the Islamic Republic would pressure FIFA to rein in possible protests in Qatar, as it did during friendly games with Uruguay and Senegal in Austria. However, it is very unlikely that FIFA could suppress protests in the way the Iranian regime does within the country. This means by going to the World Cup, the Islamic Republic is likely to pay a high price in terms of its reputation.

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