Iran soccer player 'honored' to return after playing Israelis

Iranian soccer captain who was banned for playing an Israeli club says he's glad to return as "a soldier" for the national team.

Elad Benari ,

Soccer (illustration)
Soccer (illustration)

Iranian soccer captain Masoud Shojaei said Tuesday his ban for playing an Israeli club was the "worst incident that could have happened" and he was glad to return as "a soldier" for the national side, AFP reported.

"This is a unique honor to be able to return to the national team," he said in comments carried by the Iranian Football Federation website.

"Sometimes things happen in your life that are out of your control and for me this happened in my sporting life. Not everything is in your control all the time and that incident happened and for a while I was not in the national team. I think that was the worst incident that could have happened to me," added Shojaei.

Shojaei 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.

Earlier this week, Iranian lawmaker Mohammad Ali Poormokhtar slammed the local sports federation for reinstating Shojaei, saying, "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."

Shojaei said on Tuesday, "Right now I thank God I can wear the uniform of the national team like a soldier and I am proud of it. I also thank all those who helped me."

He said he hoped to make his third World Cup appearance in Russia this summer -- which would be a record for an Iranian player.

"It would be the biggest day of my sporting life and a day that I would never forget," he said, according to AFP.

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.