Iranian MP blasts soccer player who played against 'Zionists'

Lawmaker in Iran slams sports federation for allowing star to return to the international squad despite appearing against Israeli team.

Elad Benari ,

Soccer (illustration)
Soccer (illustration)

A lawmaker in Iran on Sunday slammed the local sports federation for allowing star soccer player Masoud Shojaei to return to the international squad despite appearing against an Israeli team last year, AFP reported.

Shojaei, the 33-year-old national team captain, and teammate Ehsan Haji Safi were criticized in Iran after they appeared for their Greek club Panionios last August in a Europa League qualifier against Maccabi Tel Aviv.

The two were initially banned for life from the Iranian national team as a punishment, but Iran appeared to cancel the ban after a huge outcry from soccer fans on social media and the launch of an investigation by FIFA, which has rules against political interference in national teams.

Confusion has reigned over the matter, noted AFP, with Haji Safi never banned from the international squad, while Shojaei has missed all the international fixtures until Friday's match against Tunisia, which Iran lost 1-0.

"Re-inviting Masoud Shojaei to be present in the national football team -- after competing against the Zionist regime -- shows that the football federation has not taken serious action on this issue," hardline lawmaker Mohammad Ali Poormokhtar was quoted as having said in an interview with the Fars news agency.

He said the sports minister would be questioned after the current break for the Iranian new year.

In a press conference ahead of the Tunisia match, Shojaei said, "I am very happy to be a member of this team. Although the final list (for the World Cup squad) has not been announced yet, the fact that right now I am in this team means I am very happy and proud."

After his controversial appearance against Maccabi, Shojaej wrote on Instagram: “My country has always been and will be my priority. I have always tried to work wholeheartedly to be a suitable representative for the country.”

Iran, which does not recognize Israel, prohibits athletes or competitors in other fields from competing against Israelis.

In the most recent example, wrestler Alireza Karimi Mashiani deliberately lost a match at the under-23 world championships in Poland in order to avoid an Israeli opponent in the next round. Mashiani was given a six-month ban by the United World Wrestling Disciplinary Chamber and his coach was banned for two years.

The head of Iran's wrestling federation quit last month in disgust, saying young athletes were being forced to lie and the authorities were letting them pay the price for their policies.

Last year, a 15-year-old Iranian chess player was banned from the national team after he played against an Israeli opponent at an international chess event.

In 2011, Iranian chessmaster Ehsan Ghaem Maghami was expelled from an international chess tournament after refusing to play an Israeli opponent.

In 2010, an Iranian contestant withdrew from a Taekwondo match against Israel’s Gili Haimovitz, who won a gold medal by default.

In 2012, Iranian athletes announced their intention to boycott competitions against Israelis at the London Olympics.