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Penalty For Football Federation Head Over Israel Sports Row

Mehdi Taj the president of Football Federation of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Undated

The president of Iran’s Football Federation, Mehdi Taj, has been summoned to court over his decision to allow a player to return to the national team after playing against Israeli athletes while under contract with a foreign club, local websites reported April 16.

Iranian athletes are forbidden from competing against Israelis, and it is an open secret in the sports world that they often feign injury and throw matches to avoid facing off against Israel and being punished for it back home.

Deputy Sports Minister Mohammad Reza Davarzani told state-run television August 10 that two footballers, Massoud Shojaei and Ehsan Hajsafi, would never be invited to the national team again after playing with their Greek club Panionios against Israel’s Maccabi Tel Aviv FC in Athens in a UEFA Europa League match last year.

“They have crossed the ruling system’s redline,” Davarzani said.

Both players argued at the time they were under a contract and did not have any choice but to play against the Israeli guest in Athens. Later, Hajsafi apologized for for playing against Israelis, but Shojaei insisted he was pressured by his Greek club to play and there were no grounds for an apology.

After nine months of absence, on March 18 Shojaei played for the national team in friendlies against Algeria and Tunisia. He played in both matches wearing the captain’s armband. His return to the national team, however, enraged conservatives across Iran.

“Re-inviting Masoud Shojaei to play for the national soccer team shows that the soccer federation has not taken serious action on this issue,” conservative member of parliament Mohammad Ali Poormokhtar said in an interview with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) affiliated Fars news agency.

The rule forbidding competition between Iranians and Israelis is supposedly in solidarity with Palestine, but several players for Palestine’s national soccer team have played in Israel’s soccer leagues.

The ban on Iranian athletes facing Israelis in international sports competitions is not limited to soccer, and recent scandals have brought the controversial rule to the fore.

The United World Wrestling Disciplinary Chamber banned young Iranian wrestler Alireza Karimi Mashiani for six months for throwing a match to avoid an Israeli opponent in November 2017. His coach, Hamidreza Jamshidi, who had forced Karimi to throw a match, was banned for two years. Following the decision, the president of Iran’s Wrestling Federation, Rasoul Khadem, criticized the Islamic Republic's authorities for prohibiting competition against Israelis.

“Forcing an athlete to accept defeat or run around all night looking for a doctor’s note [to feign injury and skip the match] is not right,” Rasoul Khadem, an Olympic gold medalist, told state-run Radio before resigning from his post. Later, with the support of other Iranian athletes, Khadem withdrew his resignation.

Commander of the Baseej Resistance Force General Gholam Hossein Gheybparvar characterized Khadem’s stance as a move toward “testing the waters for establishing relations with Israel,” and warned, “This is not something that one can test and see if the result is positive, then take further steps. No further steps will be taken, because we will break their legs when they make the very first move [toward Israel].”