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Iranian Footballers Break Israel Taboo

Panionios' Ehsan Hajsafi (L) vies for the ball with Tel Aviv's Eyal Golasa during the UEFA Europa League Third qualifying round soccer match. Athens, Greece, 03 August 2017.
Panionios' Ehsan Hajsafi (L) vies for the ball with Tel Aviv's Eyal Golasa during the UEFA Europa League Third qualifying round soccer match. Athens, Greece, 03 August 2017.

In a controversial move, two Iranian footballers have broken a taboo by playing for their Greek club side, Panionios, against Israel’s Maccabi Tel Aviv.
Captain of Iran’s National Football team, Masoud Shojaei and his teammate, Ehsan Hajsafi played for full ninety minutes against the Israeli club, on Wednesday, August 3, in Athens.

Photos published in the Greek media show Panionios of Athens’ fans, in an unprecedented move, carrying Shojaei and Hajsafi on their shoulders to the locker room, appreciating their presence for the match against the Israeli side.

The Islamic Republic of Iran does not recognize the state of Israel and based on an unwritten law prohibits Iranian athletes from competing against Israeli athletes in international sports events. The unwritten law has repeatedly pushed Iranian sports federations, athletes and national teams to the verge of punishment and suspension.

Hours before Wednesday European league match, Panionios of Athens issued an official statement, declaring, “We respect their (Shojaei and Hajsafi) decision to steer clear of the return match against Maccabi Tel Aviv; but they should [also] respect their contracts and turn out for the home match.”

Meanwhile, conservatives in Iran bombarded the pair with threats.

“Hajsafi and Shojaei’s move in no way constitutes endorsement and it will certainly be addressed according to regulations and the law,” said Director of Security at Iran’s Sports Ministry, Mohammad Javad Ababaf, adding, “Most probably the pair are going to lose their spots in the national squad. Nevertheless, we should wait for officials’ final verdict.”

Meanwhile, another conservative close to the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps’ (IRGC), Fars News Agency’s desk editor, Hamed Talebi, described Shojaei’s move as “anticipated”.

Referring to 2009 bloody protests against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s controversial reelection when demonstrators wore green wristbands, Talebi maintained, “Masoud Shojaei used to wear a green wristband in support of those who chanted, ‘Neither Gaza, Nor Lebanon, I Die Only for Iran!’. Therefore, one could have easily predicted that someday he would turn out for participating in a match with an Israeli side”.

However, positive reactions to the pair’s move on social media were quite significant. In most comments, Shojaei and Hajsafi were praised for their courageous “professionalism” and respect for sports international regulations.

There were also comments that branded the move as “an end to the regime’s injustice against Iranian athletes”.

Nonetheless, in an official statement, Iran’s Football Federation tried to downplay the controversy over the move, “Despite the Greek club’s heavy pressures exerted on the pair, they steered clear of the away match [in Tel Aviv, Israel] and were fined accordingly”.

Then, in a balancing tone, the statement asserts, “We categorically condemn the pair’s participation in the home match [in Athens, Greece], yet, we are thoroughly and meticulously reviewing the case from different angles and we will complete the course by a person to person interview with the pair.”

The conservative media are not satisfied with the Federation’s statement, “How these two somewhat vainglorious footballers are going to justify their ‘masterpiece’? Why did they relent to bear such shame? Which one is more important, ‘commitment to the principles of the sacred Islamic system of Iran, or kicking the ball in a third class European League?” demanded the judiciary’s website, Mizan.

Shojaei and Hajsafi’s Greek side, Panionios of Athens lost the home match 0-1, with Maccabi Tel Aviv advancing to the play-off round 2-0 on aggregate.

The Israeli club Shojaei and Hajsafi played against was founded in 1906, more than four decades before the creation of the state of Israel.