Iranian authorities are scrambling to find a solution to the case of two football (soccer) players, who have been threatened with expulsion from the national team because they played in a match for their Greek club against an Israeli team.
An unwritten rule in Iran bans Iranian sports people to compete with Israeli athletes and teams. But the world football watchdog, FIFA has stepped in demanding an answer from Iranian authorities for their political interference in sports.
Now, Sports and Youth Affairs Minister Masoud Soltanifar says that a letter has been prepared for the Supreme National Security Council asking for a decision on the issue of sports competitions involving Iranian and Israeli athletes.
In a meeting with members of the parliament’s reformist faction, Soltanifar stressed, “We are currently monitoring the case of two Iranian soccer stars who recently played against an Israeli team in Athens, Greece, to avoid any possible problem.”
Meanwhile, Iran’s official news agency, IRNA, reported on August 13 that the “Iran Football Federation will investigate the issue of two national team players who attended a match for their Greek club against an Israeli side and will decide about it.”
Earlier, on August 10, Soltanifar’s deputy, Mohammad Reza Davarzani, had put the final nail in the coffin, declaring, “Both footballers have lost their spot on the Iranian national team ... they crossed Iran's red line.”
Immediately after Davarzani’s remarks, FIFA, in a statement released by Reuters on August 12, asked Iran to clarify the status of Masoud Shojaei and Ehsan Hajsafi, who played for their Greek club, Panionios, against Israeli team Maccabi Tel Aviv a week ago, in a Europe League match in Athens.
“We are currently monitoring the matter and will request additional information from the Iran Football Federation,” said a FIFA spokesperson in an e-mailed statement.
FIFA's statutes ban political interference in its affiliated national associations, which can be suspended if the rule is breached.
If a country's football association is suspended, it means both the national team and its clubs are barred from international competition.
There is an unwritten law in Iran that prohibits its athletes from competing against Israelis. Therefore, many Iranian athletes facing Israelis in international sports events have repeatedly been forced to lie and feign illness and give their rivals an easy walkover.
Now, it seems the ball is in the court of the Supreme National Security Council, headed by President Hassan Rouhani. If it rules against Iranian athletes playing against Israelis, Iran will face the prospect of being banned from participating in international sports events.
Iran has already qualified for next year's World Cup in Russia.
FIFA statutes state that “each member association shall manage its affairs independently and without undue influence from third parties.”
Shojaei and Hajsafi’s Greek side, Panionios of Athens, lost the home match 0-1, with Maccabi Tel Aviv advancing to the playoff round 2-0 on aggregate.
The Israeli club was founded in 1906, more than four decades before the creation of the state of Israel.
Meanwhile, a Twitter campaign with the hashtag #NoBan4Ourplayers has been launched by Iranians to defend Shojaei and Hajsafi’s “courageous move” and protest against their possible elimination from the national side.