By Andrew Warshaw
August 29 – Despite intervention by FIFA and a fan backlash, team captain Masoud Shojaei has been left out of Iran’s final World Cup qualifiers against South Korea and Syria after playing against an Israeli club for the Greek team that pays his salary.
Shojaei and Iranian team mate Ehsan Haji Safi fell foul of the Iranian authorities earlier this month when they played for Panionios against Israel’s Maccabi Tel Aviv in a Europa League qualifier, prompting Iran’s deputy sports minister to declare they had no place in Iran’s national football team for “crossing Iran’s red line.”
The game was a European club fixture and nothing to do with international football and FIFA subsequently said it had asked the Iranians to provide further information.
Iran does not recognise Israel and supports groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas that call for the Jewish state’s destruction but the move to throw out two of the country’s most popular players caused outrage on social media from Iranian fans inside and outside the country.
Iran is now trying to play down the furore by pointing to the fact that Haji Safi has, after all, been named in the latest World Cup squad to play South Korea in Seoul on August 31 and Syria at home on September 5.
But not so Shojaei, who appears to be paying the price for breaking the tradition of refusing to compete against Israeli teams. A member of Iran’s 2006 and 2014 World Cup squads, Shojaei captained the team in their last qualifier, a 2-0 win over Uzbekistan in June which clinched their qualification to Russia next year.
After his controversial appearance against Maccabi, he 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.”
Asked why Shojaei had been left behind, Iran’s Portuguese coach Carlos Queiroz diplomatically told reporters: “We have a group of 37 elite players which is the basis for our World Cup call up list, so bringing some younger players reflects our strategy of developing this group.”
But the former Portugal and Real Madrid boss added: “On the other hand, this doesn’t mean we are in the position to leave behind experienced and key players who we are used to having with us.”
Despite a successful tenure in terms of results, it is clear that Queiroz’s relationship with his bosses is anything but smooth.
On his Facebook page at the weekend, he said Iran was facing “dangerous winds of havoc” and complained of inadequate financial support for their World Cup campaign.
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