Sardour Azmoun has quit the Iranian national team over cyberbullying.

Many athletes take lots of abuse on social media, but we don’t often see that prompt them to leave particular teams. That’s what’s happened with 23-year-old Iranian forward Sardar Azmoun, though. As per the Associated Press, Azmoun has decided to withdraw from playing for Iran’s national team in the future after the abuse he took during this year’s World Cup:

Forward Sardar Azmoun said Thursday that he’s retiring from the national team. The 23-year-old Azmoun was the target of numerous attacks on social media after failing to score in any of Iran’s three group matches at the World Cup.

He was sent obscene messages and mocked for his perceived lack of impact.

Azmoun said his mother had been recovering from a serious illness, but the insults caused it to flare up again. Between football and his mother, he wrote on Instagram that “I chose my mother.”

And another Iranian striker has said he’s exiting, although it’s not clear if that’s about online abuse or about manager Carlos Queiroz’s decision not to use him:

Another forward, the 30-year-old Reza Ghoochannejhad, said that he’s also leaving the Iran team. He was an unused substitute in all three games.

“My mind, my personality and my pride do not allow me” to wear the Iranian national team shirt again, Ghoochannejhad said in his Instagram statement.

In at least Azmoun’s case, though, this is directly tied to online criticism, and that could be a big blow for Iran. While Azmoun didn’t score in this year’s tournament, he’s been one of their best strikers overall, scoring 23 goals in 36 international appearances. And at only 23, there should be plenty of room for him to improve still.

But playing for a national team is already often a challenge, as it requires extra time and training in a sport that’s becoming increasingly year-round (especially considering offseason tours and friendlies) and puts you under even a larger microscope, exposing you to further criticism. And that’s without the financial rewards of playing for a club and can sometimes negatively affect players’ standing with clubs (which is their primary job). So with all the other challenges out there, it’s understandable if criticism is the final straw that pushes some like Azmoun to opt just to leave the national team altogether.

It should also be noted that Iran did quite well overall at this year’s World Cup, beating Morocco, holding Portugal to a draw and suffering a close 1-0 loss to Spain. They could have made it through to the Round of 16 with just a little more luck or a few different breaks, but they still don’t have much to be ashamed of. And yet, the online vitriol was still strong. That perhaps even adds to the case for some players to decide that the national team just isn’t worth it.

Azmoun is also unlikely to be the only player to make this kind of call. There’s been a ton of criticism directed at other, bigger stars like Egypt’s Mo Salah, and Salah is reportedly considering leaving the national team over differences with Egypt’s Football Association (especially in relation to a controversial photo op they arranged with Chechen dictator Ramzan Kadyro). But the online vitriol he’s been facing may be a factor too. And we’ve seen other stars quit international football early in the past, and public criticism has often been at least part of the reason why.

That’s not a call to ban all criticism; discussing how players are performing is an important element of following the game for both media members and fans in general, and insisting that everyone should blindly support their national team and its players has perhaps even more problems. But there’s a difference between offering legitimate criticisms and directly going after a player, especially when the latter turns personal.

And it’s important to note that soccer’s national teams are quite distinct from club teams; they’re not a player’s primary job or source of income, and they’re often more of an extra obligation than a reward. It’s perhaps unlikely a member of the Dallas Cowboys is going to walk away even with intense cyberbullying (that doesn’t make it acceptable in their case either, of course), but it’s a lot easier to see someone leaving a national team over online criticism, and it appears that’s starting to happen. And maybe that should have fans think a little about how they’re behaving towards players. Forcing stars out of the national team really isn’t likely to produce the results they want in the end.

[The Associated Press; photo from Azmoun’s Instagram]

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz is a staff writer for Awful Announcing.