Soccer (illustration)
Soccer (illustration) iStock

Iranian soccer player Mehdi Mahdavikia sparked controversy in Iranian media after he played in a showcase match with an Israeli coach at the FIFA Arab Cup, JPost reported on Sunday.

The showcase match at the FIFA Arab Cup starred former soccer players from Arab countries and around the world. The team of world legends was coached by Israeli coach Avram Grant.

While three Algerian soccer players withdrew from the match in protest against Grant's involvement, Mahdavikia chose to take part in the game despite the fact that Iran has a longstanding policy of not allowing athletes to compete against Israeli competitors.

The Iranian Kayhan newspaper, which is associated with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, attacked the soccer player for playing in a match "unrelated to Iran, dressed in the flag of the Zionist regime and against a team coached by a Zionist." The newspaper expressed outrage that Mahdavikia had not issued a statement to "openly express his hatred" of Israel and demanded that he do so.

The Fars news agency also expressed outrage that Mahdavikia had not apologized for taking part in the match and said he had tried to make the issue seem "trivial."

The article questioned why the Sports Ministry had remained silent on the issue.

The most famous incident in recent years having to do with Iran’s boycott of Israeli athletes was that of Iranian judoka Saeid Mollaei.

Mollaei was forced to throw a match against Israelis, even after the International Judo Federation (IJF) and Iran reached an agreement which stipulates that Iran will no longer boycott competitions against Israelis.

He later travelled to Germany to begin the process of applying for asylum. He was recognized as a refugee in Germany in November of 2019 and recently won a silver medal at the Tel Aviv Grand Slam, where he represented Mongolia.

Following the incident, the IJF imposed a four-year ban from international events on Iran.