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Former Iran National Soccer Team Coach Under Fire After Criticizing Hostility Against Israel

Mohammad Mayeli Kohan, Iranian football coach
Mohammad Mayeli Kohan, Iranian football coach

A former coach of Iran's national soccer team has come under fire for criticizing the Iranian regime’s policy of not recognizing Israel and wishing its annihilation.

In a recent online program, Mohammad Mayeli-Kohan said Iran must recognize all members of the United Nations if it accepts the authority of the international organization, and cannot wish the annihilation of a country that's its member.

"We can't accept some things about the United Nations and refuse to accept others," the former coach said.

Mayeli-Kohan led Iran's national soccer from 2009 to 2011 and several top soccer and futsal teams before retiring in 2016.

On social media, hardliners have responsed to Mayeli-Kohan’s comments by calling him shameless, stupid, a mercenary and a Zionist. On Thursday, Athletes' Basij Militia issued a statement claiming the former national team coach was begging to attract attention to himself by making such statements about the government's policies towards Israel.

"Shame on people who have such beliefs and close their eyes to the tears of the parents of martyred children in Yemen, Palestine, Afghanistan, Lebanon and Syria," the statement said and demanded Mayeli-Kohan's apology.

In 2017, Mayeli-Kohan defended Masoud Shojaei, a member of the national soccer team who was sacked after playing against Israel's Maccabi Tel Aviv FC in the European League in Athens. Shojaei, who played for Panionios F.C. on a one-year contract, refused to apologize for playing against Israel, and said as a member of the team he could not refuse to play in the game.

Since its establishment, the Islamic Republic has refused to recognize Israel, and based on an unwritten law has prohibited Iranian athletes to compete with Israelis at international sporting events. The ban has cost the suspension of Iran's Judo team by the International Judo Federation.

On May 17, the spokesman of the National Security and Foreign Policy Committee of Iran’s parliament said the committee had rejected a controversial parliamentary motion that would ban Iranian athletes from competing with their Israeli counterparts.

The motion emphasized that "any competition or sporting event, whether formal or preparatory," between Iranian athletes and sports teams with Israeli opponents was prohibited.

In a controversial statement, an ultraconservative member of the parliamentary sports faction who opposed the committee's decision said that there was nothing wrong with suspending Iranian sports altogether, given that in the Islamic Republic "religious principles" had priority over sports.