Iran bans two national team players for playing for Greek club vs Maccabi Tel Aviv

Masoud Shojaei

August 11 – In a move which prompted fans – presumably from outside of the country – to take to social media to express their anger, two Iranian internationals have been banned for life from their national team as punishment for playing for their Greek club against an Israeli side.

Captain Masoud Shojaei (pictured) and fellow midfielder Ehsan Haji Safi both turned out for Panionios, which pays their salaries, in the Europa League against Maccabi Tel Aviv last month, prompting Iran’s ministry of sport to warn of “proper punitive measures” even though the game was a European club fixture and nothing to do with international football.

Iran does not recognise Israel and supports groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas that call for the Jewish state’s destruction.  Shojaei and Haji Safi, 71 and 84 caps respectively, are now paying the price, having both played the full 90 minutes for Panionios in the third qualifying round, second leg which the Israelis won 2-0 on aggregate.

“It is certain that Masoud Shojaei and Ehsan Haji Safi will never be invited to join the national football team because they violated the red line,” said Mohammad Reza Davarzani, Iran’s deputy sports minister, on Iranian state television.

Both Shojaei and Hajisafi declined to travel for the away leg in Israel despite reportedly facing sanctions from their club. Instead, having agreed to play in the return, they were kicked out of their national team.

“They have a financial contract with a club to be paid and play for that team, but to play with the representative of a loathsome regime… this is not acceptable for Iranian people,” added Davarzani whose incendiary comments must surely be noted by both FIFA and UEFA.

Likewise the remarks of Hossein Naghavi-Hosseini, spokesman for the Iranian parliament’s foreign policy committee, who told the semi-official Mehr news 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.”

Not surprisingly Iran’s FA backed the government’s position.

Ali Kafashian, the Iran football federation vice president, told the Mizan Online website that the two players should not have played “even if their contracts would have been terminated” by Panionos.

Iran are coached by former Manchester United assistant manager Carlos Queiroz who has made no public comment. The country has already qualified for next year’s World Cup but the loss of two of its most experienced players is bound to reduce chances of success in Russia.

Iran played in AFC qualifying while Israel, though located in the AFC’s geographic footprint, plays in UEFA’s qualifying competition. While in different regions, it seems acceptable to the Iranians that they play in the same competition as Israel. But unacceptable for their players to play against Israelis. Wherever they are played, World Cup qualifiers are part of the same World Cup competition (an obvious but important recognition). Israel will not qualify for Russia 2018, but either way, it seems Iranian politics is missing a logical beat.

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