Iran’s national side soccer coach, Carlos Queiroz, has declared the list of footballers chosen to play against South Korea and Syria.
The captain, Masoud Shojaei, who played against an Israeli club in Athens, is not on the list by Portuguese coach Carlos Queiroz.
Nonetheless, Shojaei’s teammate, Ehsan Hajsafi, who also played for Greek side Panionios of Athens against Maccabi Tel Aviv, is included on the Iranian squad.
Shojaei and Hajsafi played for Panionios against Maccabi Tel Aviv for a full 90 minutes on August 3. However, they were not present at the away match in Tel Aviv.
Later, Hajsafi and Shojaei’s Greek club issued a statement, stressing that the team needed them for the return match in Athens.
It was a gentle reminder to the Iranian athletes that if they skipped the return match, they would breach their contracts and fined accordingly. Shojaei and Hajsafi received the message and decided to help their Greek side in its return match against the Israelis.
Predictably, the soccer players’ presence in their club’s home match against the Israeli club triggered fiery criticism from conservatives in Iran.
Iran does not recognize the state of Israel and, based on an unwritten law, bars its athletes from competing against participants from the country. So far, several Israeli athletes have had easy wins by walkover against their Iranian rivals in international sports events. As a rule, Iranian athletes lie and feign illness to avoid challenging their Israeli counterparts.
Shojaei and Hajsafi practically broke the unwritten law and taboo of confronting an Israeli rival.
They “crossed the red line,” according to Iranian Sports and Youth Affairs Deputy Minister Mohammad Davarzani, who lambasted the two, saying, “They have crossed the [government's] red line, and they are not going to have a place on Iran’s national side.”
Davarzani’s comments led to widespread reactions in defense of Shojaei and Hajsafi. Social media outlets were bombarded with angry posts condemning the “harsh decision” and demanding FIFA step in and stop the “totally unfair punishment.”
FIFA's statutes ban political interference in its affiliated national associations, which can be suspended if the rule is breached.
“We are currently monitoring the matter and will request additional information from the Iran Football Federation,” said a FIFA spokesperson shortly after the incident.
If a country's FA is suspended, it means both the national team and its clubs are barred from international competition.
Iran has already qualified for next year's World Cup, making it an especially delicate matter for FIFA.
FIFA statutes state that “each member association shall manage its affairs independently and without undue influence from third parties.”
The unprecedented angry reactions forced Sports and Youth Affairs Minister Masoud Soltanifar to downplay the row, saying, “I have asked the Supreme National Security Council to lay a ground rule for Iranian athletes who face Israeli competitors in international sports events.”
Meanwhile, Shojaei and Hajsafi were under heavy pressure from conservatives to publicly apologize for their “outrageous and shameful” behavior.
The beheading of an Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) member, Mohsen Hojaji, who was reportedly captured by the Islamic State (IS) militants on August 7 and beheaded two days later in Syria, intensified the pressures.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei praised Hojaji and soon his supporters followed suit comparing him with Hajsafi and Shojaei, blasting the two for what they described as betraying the "values" of the Islamic revolution.
Under the pressure, Shojaei stopped short of an apology and rather tried to justify his decision for playing against an Israeli club.
“I deeply respect those who sacrifice their lives for our country,” Shojaei said. “I am a child of war myself, and I come from a city of blood and sacrifice where the children’s lullaby was the roar of cannons and artillery.”
A member of Iran's national team at the 2006 and 2014 World Cups, Shojaei, 33, had captained the team in their last qualifier, a 2-0 win over Uzbekistan in June that secured their ticket to Russia.
Meanwhile, Hajsafi decided to go slightly further than his teammate and did not shy away from expressing regret for playing against an Israeli club.
“Regretfully, people of our country, with a justified broken heart, were forced to judge an incident that should have not had happened. However, do not forget that we [athletes] have always tried to bring a smile to the lips of 80 million Iranians.”
Hajsafi also called Hojaji an “obvious paragon of sacrifice” who lost his life for security and revolutionary aspirations.
The published list of Iranian soccer players expected to play against South Korea in Seoul on August 31 and Syria at home on September 5 does not necessarily mean Shojaei has lost his national position indefinitely. As Iran has already qualified for the next World Cup in Russia, its matches against South Korea and Syria are a formality. Therefore, keeping captain Shojaei out of two peripheral matches might also be interpreted as sports coaches’ tactic for saving their star for vital matches on rainy days.
Queiroz, in comments reflected on Iran’s Football Federation official website, maintained, “The list [of players picked for matches against South Korea and Syria] does not necessarily mean that we are dropping out [star players like] Andranik Eskandarian, Pejman Montazeri, Khosro Haidari, and Masoud Shojaei for good. They are still on our list of the best 37 elite players we can choose from.”
Meanwhile, Queiroz has not missed the chance to criticize soccer authorities in Iran.
“My team is facing dangerous winds of havoc,” Queiroz lamented on a post on his Facebook account on August 26. “Iranian authorities had failed to provide adequate financial support for their World Cup campaign.”