Maccabi Tel Aviv vs Tehran (and other concerns)

How sporting spirit can defeat politics and prejudice, even in Iran, and what this has to do with Israel.

THE Iran team poses for a photo in 2015. Front row L to R: Ehsan Hajsafi, Morteza Pouraliganji, Vouria Ghafouri, Ashkan Dejagah and Mehrdad Pooladi. Back row L to R: Goalkeeper Alireza Haghighi, Sardar Azmoun, Masoud Shojaei, Andranik Teymourian, Seyed Jalal Hosseini and Javad Nekounam. (photo credit: JASON REED/REUTERS)
THE Iran team poses for a photo in 2015. Front row L to R: Ehsan Hajsafi, Morteza Pouraliganji, Vouria Ghafouri, Ashkan Dejagah and Mehrdad Pooladi. Back row L to R: Goalkeeper Alireza Haghighi, Sardar Azmoun, Masoud Shojaei, Andranik Teymourian, Seyed Jalal Hosseini and Javad Nekounam.
(photo credit: JASON REED/REUTERS)
At the age of 33, Masoud Shojaei is a superstar in Iran. The Iranian midfielder from the Greek soccer team Panionios is the captain of Iran’s national team. He has an impressive international football career and is admired by millions in his country and abroad.
After playing for small clubs in his homeland, Shojaei played in the Emirates, Spain, Qatar and now in Greece. He is considered very close to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Only two months ago, in an unusual move that attracted many reactions and worldwide headlines, he asked the president to consider abolishing one of the cornerstones of Iranian football – the ban on women in stadiums.
In Iran, football is another religion. In every match of the national team the Azadi Stadium in Tehran is filled with more than 100,000 people, as it is in derbies between Persepolis and Esteghlal.
Due to radical religious and traditional motives, women are not allowed to attend football matches.
For several years, wide public protest in the matter has been running high in Iran and abroad.
After Shojaei’s comments to the president, many Iranian soccer players and fans have supported him.
Rouhani promised to consider the matter and Shojaei became a national hero, embraced also by the international community.
Unfortunately for him, last month his team was drawn to play against Israeli champions Maccabi Tel Aviv in the Europa League qualifications. Since then, he has been in the middle of a storm.
Due to the lack of relations between Israel and Iran, Shojaei and Ehsan Hajsafi, another Iranian in ternational who plays for Panionios, were the main event in the coverage of the double header of the Greek team with Maccabi, especially in Israel.
In Iran it was the opposite – the media barely covered it and apart from mentioning that Panionios has respected the request of the two players not to come to Israel, it was hardly mentioned. After all, no Iranian expected them to arrive in Israel – it’s illegal in their country and it could cost them two to five years in prison.
Maccabi Tel Aviv outperformed Panionios, winning both games (3-0 in aggregate) and continuing to the next phase in the competition. While Shojaei and Hajsafi have disappeared from the Israeli news, in Iran the story went viral, rapidly turning the game of football into a heated debate between the Iranian establishment and Iran’s soccer-loving public.
BEFORE THE Islamic Revolution of 1979 forced dramatic changes in the country, Iran and Israel had close ties and competed quite often in sports, especially in football. The Israeli national team and Israeli clubs played several times in Tehran during the Sixties and Seventies. Back then, Israel was still part of the Asian Football Confederation, before the boycott that the Arab and Islamic world have decided to impose on it.
Since the revolution, Iran does not recognize the State of Israel and prohibits its athletes from competing against Israeli athletes in international sports events. From 1983 to 2006 no Iranian athlete participated in a competition against an Israeli opponent.
At the time, Iran described the decision as “protection for the Palestinian people,” but in 2006 things changed. The International Olympics Committee updated the Olympic charter, making it clear that ifan athlete refused to compete against other athletes on political, religious, racial or ethnic grounds, they would be banned from international competitions.
In addition, the offending country’s federation would be fined and/or would be banned from competitions.
Iranian officials had no option but to change their tack. The result was that the standard excuse of Iranian athletes for refusing to compete against Israelis has become fake injuries.
Throughout the years, few notable Iranian footballers were scheduled to play against Israeli opponents.
Vahid Hashemian, Ashkan Dejagah, Alireza Jahanbakhsh, all past and present Iranian internationals have refused to play against Israeli teams by claiming injuries.
BEFORE THE second game between Panionios and Maccabi in Athens, the issue became relevant. Panionios announced that not only would the Iranian team play, but would even open in the first eleven.
The players tried to explain that this would cause a storm at home, but their club answered: “Professional footballers must respect their contracts. We did not take you to Tel Aviv, but the fate of the European season is on the line here. You’re in.”
In the game itself, Shojaei and Hajsafi played very well, wearing wristbands in the colors of the Iranian flag, but failed to help their team win. The real action was taking place in Iran, or more precisely on social networks. Many Iranian fans began to express their opinion about two Iranians for playing against an Israeli team, and the hashtag #Shojaei_Hajsafi became viral.
While many expressed their dismay, others asked about their professional future on the national team. The stormy debate quickly reached the Iranian Football Association (IFA), as well as the country’s authorities.
The IFA announced that the case would be investigated and that a solution would be reached only after talking with the two. Mohammad Reza Davarzani, the deputy minister of sports, has said that both players “did not respect the principles of the Islamic Republic by playing with the representative of the Zionist occupier in Palestine” and that they “must be banned for life from the national team.”
In addition, the subject became a convenient catch for other local politicians who tried to attract public attention by calling for the players to be banned. Those who have not aligned themselves with the Iranian establishment were the fans and Iranian soccer community.
MANY IRANIAN soccer fans in the country and abroad have expressed great support for Shojaei and Hajsafi, encouraging the authorities to remove the threats from the two and not to mix politics with sports. Senior players joined the effort to prevent their ban.
Sardar Azmoun (an Iranian top talent), Jahanbakhsh (who plays for AZ in Holland), Mehdi Taremi (from champions Persepolis), Farhad Majidi (captain of Esteghlal Tehran) and Ali Karimi (the “Persian Maradona”), who played in Bayern Munich and now coaches Naft Tehran have all expressed their support, demanding: “Leave them alone, we want them on the team.”
Feeling the momentum on their side, the fans started a massive social media campaign under the hashtags #SaveShojaeiAndHajsafi and #NoBan4OurPlayers, to prevent Iranian authorities from taking any action against the two players. They asked the government and the IFA to keep politics off the football field and let the players remain on the squad. More than 100,000 have expressed their support.
With the public behind them, Shojaei and Hajsafi have put the Iranian authorities in a bind. In a football-addicted country like Iran, banning two very popular national team players who are totally supported by the public is not a simple thing, not to mention the huge damage to the country’s worldwide image.
The Iranian Sports Ministry was quick to retract the senior officials’ statements about punishing the two and announced that the IFA was responsible.
After a few days Iran’s football federation said it would not expel two Iranian footballers just days after issuing a statement saying it would.
The announcement came a day after the International Federation of Association Football demanded that Iranian officials explain their decision, which has yet to come.
Even if Shojaei and Hajsafi are dropped from the team for the next World Cup qualifiers, it wouldn’t be critical. Iran has already secured its place in the World Cup (the third country to do so after Brazil and host Russia). They have two games left.
In fact, even if they are banned for six months or so, they will still be available to represent Iran on the most important football stage in the world.
Among Iranian journalists, it is believed that the public protest has helped and the players won’t be banned. It’s not official yet, but it looks like this story will be concluded happily after all.
AS A COUNTRY that sponsors worldwide terrorism, is involved in every conflict in the Middle East and is in an ongoing confrontation with Saudi Arabia, Israel and the West, Iran does not fear its players being in the game against Maccabi Tel Aviv as much as it does worry about what its competitors for regional leadership would do or say following the game. This is why they didn’t cover it before and still do not know how to handle it.
The story of Shojaei and Hajsafi begins badly, gets complicated later on and so far continues well. It demonstrates Iran’s tensions within itself, as a technological and politically developing country and as a strong regional power, whose anti-Israeli and anti- Western line is constantly being tested.
Whether it’s the women’s presence in the stadiums or playing football against Israeli teams, Iranian politics, religion and Persian culture create a clash between the values and laws of the Islamic Republic and the outside world.
Moreover, it’s a positive story about football; about its fans and players, their passion for it, and how their sporting spirit can defeat dirty politics, conservatism and prejudice, even in a country like Iran.