On July 20, the UEFA Europa League held its third qualifying round draw, and the event proved to be an especially challenging one for two Iranian soccer players. Masoud Shojaei and Ehsan Haji Safi, both national team players, were expected to play in two home and away games against Israel’s Maccabi Tel Aviv for their current employer, the Greek national team Panionios. It should be noted that the Islamic Republic of Iran forbids Iranian athletes from competing against Israelis. And, just like every other Iranian citizen, Shojaei and Haji Safi’s passports clearly state that the holder of the document is not permitted to travel to “Occupied Palestine [including Israel].”
Prior to the games, the coach of Panionios told Greece’s sports radio that the two players would not be making the trip to Tel Aviv due to “government regulations” in Iran. The away game took place July 27 without Shojaei and Haji Safi, and it resulted in a 1-0 win for Maccabi. But two days ahead of the home game in Athens, the Greek club issued a statement describing their participation as “necessary.”
Thus, under media silence on Aug. 3, Shojaei and Haji Safi put on their wristbands with the colors of Iran’s flag and played the entire 90-minute game against Maccabi. The game once again ended 1-0 in favor of Maccabi, leaving Panionios unable to proceed to the next level.
News, video and images of the game quickly circulated on Persian-language social media, prompting many debates. While domestic media wrote about the controversy specific to Shojaei and Haji Safi, foreign outlets focused on the wider breaking of taboos in sports competitions between Iran and Israel.
This was not the first time an Iranian soccer player went up against an Israeli team. On July 26, 2000, Mehrdad Minavand, a player for the national soccer team, played against Israel's Hapoel Tel Aviv for his Austrian team Strom Graz in the Europa League qualifiers. Minavand played in the home game, which was held in Austria. However, he refused to participate in the away game in Israel. He had told his club that he could not travel to Israel due to regulations by the Islamic Republic.
In an interview with Al-Monitor, Mohammad Mayeli Kohan, the former coach of Iran’s national soccer team, highlighted the professional rules of the soccer world and said, “I don't think these guys did anything wrong in particular. They were supposed to go to Israel for the games, but they didn’t. However, when they are under a contract, they need to act according to their contract; otherwise, they will face suspension. We either don’t accept international regulations or, if we do, we have to align ourselves with it.”
In separate statements released on Aug. 4, Iran’s Football Federation and the Ministry of Sports and Youths condemned the two players for playing against a representative of Israel and promised to consult reports and analyses on the situation.
In an Aug. 10 interview with Iran’s state broadcaster, Iran’s Deputy Sports Minister Mohammad Reza Davarzani said Shojaei and Haji Safi would never be invited to join the national soccer team because they had violated the “Islamic Republic’s red line.”
Iranian and Israeli athletes did compete against each other before the 1979 Islamic Revolution, including in the final match of the 1968 Asian Cup that was held in Amjadieh Stadium — now known as Shahid Shiroudi Stadium — in the heart of the capital city of Tehran. That game ended with Iran beating defending champions Israel 2-1 to win the Asian Cup.
In 1983, Iran’s then-President Ali Khamenei referred to this game in a television interview and said, “[In] those days, I was a young religious scholar who traveled to Tehran. The general atmosphere in Tehran was against the Israeli team, and after the game everyone expressed their joy over this victory. Even the taxi driver said, ‘Did you see how we scored a goal against them?’ which illustrated the nation’s dissatisfaction over the shah’s cooperation with Israel.”
The last official sports competition between Iran and Israel was the 1983 FILA World Wrestling Championships in Kiev in which Iranian wrestler Bijan Seifkhani competed against Robinson Konashvili from Israel, winning 7-4 and taking ninth place in the world. Although both Kayhan daily and Kayhan Sports described the victory as “Iran’s huge triumph,” a few hours after the competition, Iran’s then-Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati ordered the Iranian team to immediately return home in the middle of the night.
News of Shojaei and Haji Safi being banned by Iran’s Sports Ministry not only sparked an outcry among Iran’s social media users, but it also sparked reactions from famous sports, political and artistic figures in the country.
Not competing against Israeli athletes has resulted in Iran being announced as the loser of such games ever since Kiev in 1983. Prior to 2006, Iranian sports authorities described “support for the innocent people of Palestine” as the reason why Iran would not face off against Israel. In 2006, however, the International Olympic Committee officially declared that refusing to participate in competitions over political, religious, racial or ethnic biases, or contentions would be penalized. No policy changes have since been made in Iran with regard to how games against Israeli athletes should be dealt with. However, to prevent being barred or suspended by international bodies, Iranian authorities often blame injuries, illnesses or not reaching the desired weight for why Iran’s athletes cannot attend certain competitions.
News of Shojaei and Haji Safi being banned by Iran’s Sports Ministry not only sparked an outcry among Iran’s social media users, but it also sparked reactions from famous sports, political and artistic figures in the country. Using the hashtag #ShojaeiHajisafi and #NoBan4OurPlayers, they showed their support for the two soccer players.
Former national soccer star Mehdi Mahdavikia, who also played for the German club Hamburg SV, was also among the critics. In an Instagram post, Mahdavikia wrote, “I wish we could pay attention to our sports infrastructure … overcoming poverty, addiction, unemployment … instead of the events in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq.”
Mahdavikia’s reference to the issue of Syria and Iraq in return prompted Shojaei and Haji Safi’s critics to respond by using a Persian hashtag that translates into #VulgarCelebrity. Taking to his Twitter account, Vahid Yaminpour, a well-known conservative TV anchor in Iran, wrote, “We should defend Mahdavikia’s right to express his personal opinion just as [we should defend] the rights of the establishment in banning the two players who violated its values.”
On Aug. 24, Mahdavikia and Mayeli Kohan were banned from Iranian state TV because of their comments about Shojaei and Haji Safi's situation, according to Hossein Ghahhar, sports reporter for Sharvand.
Following foreign media coverage of the ban, the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) ultimately stepped in with a spokesperson telling Reuters News Agency on Aug. 21 that FIFA had requested further information from Iran’s Football Federation. The Iranian federation, however, denied any ban being placed on the two soccer players. Shojaei and Haji Safi's names were also seen on a list released by Iran’s Portuguese coach Carlos Queiroz on Aug. 16, which showed who had been invited to join Iran’s national team.
But is Shojaei and Haji Safi's story over? According to Mayeli Kohan, Reza Davarzani’s response was the Sports Ministry’s political gesture ahead of votes of confidence for Hassan Rouhani’s second-term Cabinet in parliament. He told Al-Monitor, “I think they played this politically because the new administration had to get a vote of confidence from parliament. The type of stances that were taken were in a way aimed at making this happen. Maybe if the Ministry of Sports and Youth had responded any other way, it could not have obtained a vote of confidence from parliament.”