Iran bans 2 for play­ing match against Is­raelis

Ira­nian soc­cer play­ers are barred for life from na­tional team for vi­o­lat­ing a rule.

Los Angeles Times - - THE WORLD - By Ramin Mostaghim and Shashank Ben­gali

TEHRAN — Two soc­cer play­ers have been barred for life from Iran’s na­tional team af­ter they ap­peared in a match against play­ers from Is­rael, prompt­ing anger among the sport’s many fans in the Is­lamic Repub­lic.

Ma­soud Sho­jaei and Eh­san Haji Safi played last week in a Euro­pean league match for the Greek team Pan­io­n­ios against Mac­cabi Tel Aviv, an Is­raeli club. That ap­peared to vi­o­late a long­stand­ing rule pro­hibit­ing Ira­nian ath­letes from com­pet­ing against op­po­nents from Is­rael, a na­tion that the Ira­nian govern­ment doesn’t rec­og­nize.

Af­ter the match, a Per­sian-lan­guage Twit­ter ac­count main­tained by the Is­raeli For­eign Min­istry posted a mes­sage: “Well done to Ma­soud Sho­jaei and Eh­san Haji Safi who broke the taboo of not play­ing in matches against Is­raeli ath­letes.”

On Wed­nes­day, Iran’s deputy sports min­is­ter, Mo­ham­mad Reza Davarzani, said in an in­ter­view with Mizan news agency, the mouth­piece of Iran’s ju­di­ciary, that the play­ers would no longer be al­lowed on the na­tional soc­cer team.

“It is cer­tain that Ma­soud Sho­jaei and Eh­san Haji Safi will never be in­vited to join the na­tional foot­ball team be­cause they vi­o­lated the red line,” state tele­vi­sion quoted Davarzani as say­ing.

The com­ments set off vig­or­ous dis­cus­sion on so­cial me­dia in Iran, where soc­cer is the most pop­u­lar sport. Iran’s soc­cer fed­er­a­tion, the sport’s gov­ern­ing body, did not im­me­di­ately con­firm the play­ers’ sus­pen­sions, but Davarzani said his min­istry had the author­ity to make the de­ci­sion.

For many years, Ira­nian ath­letes on the in­ter­na­tional stage have hewed to an un­writ­ten rule that they not play against Is­raelis, with many feign­ing ill­ness or us­ing other ruses to avoid head-to-head com­pe­ti­tions.

Sho­jaei and Safi, both of whom are un­der con­tract to play for the Greek club, ap­peared to ob­serve part of the cus­tom when they sat out a match last month against Mac­cabi, played in Is­rael.

But both played the full 90 min­utes in the Aug. 4 match in Greece, which their team lost, 1-0.

Many soc­cer fans de­fended the play­ers for hon­or­ing their con­tract and ac­cused Davarzani of politi­ciz­ing a sport in which Iran, which has qual­i­fied for the 2018 World Cup, strug­gles to com­pete on an in­ter­na­tional level. Its soc­cer am­bi­tions have been ham­pered by of­fi­cial mis­man­age­ment and in­ter­na­tional eco­nomic sanc­tions.

“Ira­nian foot­ballers need to be in­ter­na­tion­al­ized and play in [Europe] to bring hard currency and new tech­niques and ex­pe­ri­ence to help do­mes­tic foot­ball,” said Ali Samienia, a 64-year-old coach in a youth soc­cer league in Tehran.

“What is the fuss? It’s not a big deal. Ira­nian politi­cians are push­ing politics into sport, es­pe­cially foot­ball.”

Ira­nian hard-lin­ers have been as­sert­ing them­selves in re­cent months fol­low­ing the re­elec­tion vic­tory of Pres­i­dent Has­san Rouhani, a rel­a­tive mod­er­ate.

Rouhani, who cam­paigned on ex­pand­ing per­sonal free­doms and im­prov­ing re­la­tions with the West, has frus­trated sup­port­ers by fail­ing to ap­point any women to his Cab­i­net — an ap­par­ent show of def­er­ence to the con­ser­va­tive cler­ics who are the cus­to­di­ans of the na­tion’s theoc­racy.

Soc­cer fans said the play­ers’ sus­pen­sions could af­fect Iran’s World Cup hopes — es­pe­cially the loss of Sho­jaei, the cap­tain of the na­tional team who played 70 min­utes in a vic­tory over Uzbek­istan in June that clinched Iran’s spot in the qua­dren­nial tour­na­ment.

Safi did not play in the match.

“Sho­jaei’s ab­sence will have a neg­a­tive im­pact on Iran’s matches in the World Cup,” said Reza Agharahimi, a 30-year-old soc­cer fan in Tehran. “It would be bet­ter to think of the in­fra­struc­ture of Ira­nian foot­ball rather than pay at­ten­tion to mi­nor, unim­por­tant is­sues which are politics and have noth­ing to do with sport.”

— Ali Samienia,

shashank.ben­gali @la­times.com Spe­cial cor­re­spon­dent Mostaghim re­ported from Tehran and Times staff writer Ben­gali from Mum­bai, In­dia.

‘What is the fuss? It’s not a big deal. Ira­nian politi­cians are push­ing politics into sport, es­pe­cially foot­ball.’ Ira­nian youth soc­cer coach

Atta Kenare AFP/Getty Im­ages

MA­SOUD SHO­JAEI, left, cap­tain of Iran’s na­tional team, com­petes against Uzbek­istan. Sho­jaei par­tic­i­pated in a match for his Greek club against a team in­clud­ing Is­raeli play­ers, which the Ira­nian govern­ment for­bids.

VCG

EH­SAN HAJI SAFI also par­tic­i­pated in the Greek club’s Euro­pean league match against a Tel Aviv club.

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