Iran has a longstanding policy of forbidding its athletes from competing against Israeli counterparts. Recently that’s manifested in a teen chessmaster being banned for playing against an Israeli, and during the 2012 Olympics, an Iranian judo competitor withdrew rather than face an Israeli opponent. (And a similar instance happened last year.)
Two Iranian national team players who ply their trade for Greek club side Panionios wore Iranian wristbands and took part in a Europa League match against Israeli team Maccabi Tel Aviv. That’s enough to have earned the wrath of the powers that be.
Via The Washington Post:
The two players blended in with the rest of their teammates on the Greek club team Panionios of Athens, save for something they wore on their wrists. Both from Iran, Masoud Shojaei and Ehsan Hajsafi sported wristbands featuring their homeland’s flag.
The accessory was subtle, going unnoticed by most fans of the Greek team, but to many Iranian hard-liners watching Friday’s Europa League qualifier against the Israeli side Maccabi Tel Aviv from home, the wristbands were blinding.
By even playing in the match, Shojaei, who last month petitioned the government to allow women in soccer stadiums, and Hajsafi put their national careers at risk. By making sure they represented Iran while doing so made them public enemies in their homeland.
On Friday, the Associated Press reports, Iran’s soccer federation issued a statement noting it “strongly condemns” Shojaei’s and Hajsafi’s decision to play against Maccabi.
“Undoubtedly, proud Iranian athletes have always shown that they have no interest in competing against the occupying Zionist regime,” continued the statement, which the federation posted to its website in Farsi, “even at the Olympic Games and World Cup.”
The statement continued, noting the federation will “thoroughly examine the full extent of the matter,” while Iran’s sports ministry said the players will be “dealt with according to the rules.”
FIFA technically doesn’t allow the government of a nation to interfere with a country’s soccer federation, but in this case the lines are blurred to the point that it may not matter. Iran has already clinched qualification for the 2018 World Cup, and it remains to be seen whether or not these players will be allowed to take the field in Russia next summer.