Iran Bans Two Soccer Stars for Playing Against Israelis

Last year, the Iranian Olympian Alireza Khojasteh withdrew from the judo competition at the Rio Games, citing “personal reasons. It is widely thought that he did so to avoid the possibility of facing an Israeli opponent.

It took Iranian officials more than a week to announce the suspension of the two soccer players, who both played the full 90 minutes in their team’s 0-1 defeat in the second leg of a home-and-away series in the UEFA Europa League third qualifying round. Iran’s Parliament, in a special meeting of the foreign policy committee on Sunday, had already denounced the two players.

Photo

Iran’s Ehsan Haji Safi, right, during a match against Nigeria.

Credit
CJ Gunther/European Pressphoto Agency

“Agreeing to play in a game against athletes of a regime that has given humanity nothing other than occupation, murder, aggression and betrayal is disrespectful of the rights of thousands of martyrs and those displaced and affected by the occupying Zionist regime,” the spokesman for the committee, Hossein Naghavi-Hosseini, told the semiofficial Mehr news agency.

Iran’s national soccer team has been on a winning streak recently under its Portuguese coach, Carlos Queiroz. In June, Iran became the first team from Asia to qualify for the World Cup in Russia, defeating Uzbekistan 2-0. Mr. Shojaei played 70 minutes in that decisive game, while Mr. Haji Safi was an unused substitute watching the match from the bench.

Missing two key players a year before the World Cup tournament could undermine the team’s chances of advancing in Russia.

“This is ridiculous, there is no law against playing against Israelis, it’s a decision for every athlete to make him or herself,” said Moeen Farrokhi, 28, a supporter of Iran’s national team. “They weren’t even playing for Iran, but for their club that invested in them.”

In fact, neither Mr. Shojaei nor Mr. Haji Safi participated in their club’s first game against Maccabi in Israel, which the Greek club also lost, 1-0.

“I am wholeheartedly hoping for FIFA to deprive Iran from participating in the World Cup for banning Shojaei and Haji Safi,” said another Iranian soccer fan, Hushang Mirza, on Twitter, referring to soccer’s world governing body. FIFA has rules that forbid political interference in countries’ national teams. There was no immediate reaction from FIFA on the decision by Iran to…

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