"No Ban For Our Players"

At the age of 33, Masoud Shojaei is a superstar in Iran.

The Iranian midfielder of Greek football team Panionios is the captain of the Iran’s national team, has an impressive international football career and is admired by millions in his country and abroad. After playing for small clubs at his homeland, Shojaei played in the Emirates, Spain, Qatar, and now in Greece. He is considered very close to Iranian president Hassan Rouhani. Only two months ago, in an unusual move that have attracted many reactions and worldwide headlines, he asked the president to consider canceling one of the cornerstones of Iranian football – the ban on women presence in the stadiums.

In Iran, football is another religion. In every match of the national team the Azadi Stadium in Tehran is filled with more than 100,000 people. So does Tehran derbies between Persepolis and Esteghlal.

Due to radical religious and traditional motives, women are not allowed to attend football matches as an audience. For few years now, a wide public protest in the matter is running in Iran and abroad. After Shojaei’s comments to the president, many Iranian soccer players and fans have supported him & his position. Rouhani promised to consider, and Shojaei turned a national hero, hugged by the international community too.

Unfortunately for him, last month his team was drawn to play against Israeli vice champions Maccabi Tel Aviv in the Europa League qualifications. Since then, him, and he’s in a middle of a storm.

Due to the relations between Israel and Iran, Shojaei and Ehsan Hajsafi, another Iranian international that plays for Panionios, were a the main event in the coverage of the double header of the Greek team with Maccabi, especially in Israel.

In Iran it was the contrary – the media barely covered it and apart from mentioning that the Panionios has respected the request of the two players not to come to Israel, it was hardly mentioned. After all, no one in Iran expected them to arrive in Israel - it's illegal in their country, and it could cost them two to five years in prison.

Maccabi Tel Aviv was better than Panionios, won both games (won 3-0 in aggregate) and continued to the next phase in the competition. While Shojaei and Hajsafi have disappeared from the Israeli news watch, in Iran the story only started to get viral, and rapidly turned into a saga that turned the game of football into a heated debate between the Iranian establishment and Iranian soccer fans and public.

The Happy 60’s Are Over

Before the Islamic Revolution in 1979 that forced dramatic changes in the country, Iran and Israel held close ties and were competing quite often in sports, especially in football. The Israeli national team and Israeli clubs played several times in Tehran during the sixties and seventies. Back then, Israel was still part of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), before the boycott that the Arab and Islamic world have decided to imply against it.

Since the revolution, Iran does not recognize the state of Israel, and prohibits its athletes from competing against Israeli athletes in international sports events. From 1983 to 2006 no Iranian athlete participated in a competition versus an Israeli opponent. Iran then described the decision as “protection for the Palestinian people”. But in 2006, things changed. The International Olympics Committee (IOC) updated the Olympic charter, making it clear that if an athlete refused to compete against other athletes on political, religious, racial or ethnic grounds, that latter would be banned from international competitions. In addition, this country’s federation of that country would be fined and/or would be banned from competitions.

Iranian officials had no option but to change their tack. The result was that the standard excuse of Iranian athletes for refusing to compete against Israelis has been injuries. Fake injuries.

Throughout the years, few notable Iranian footballers were supposed to play agains Israeli opponents. Vahid Hashemian, Ashkan Dejagah, Alireza Jahanbakhsh, all Iranian internationals in the past, that have refused to play against Israeli teams by reporting on injuries, which were practically fake.

Therefore, before the second game between Panionios and Maccabi in Athens, the issue became relevant. The duo have asked not to take part in the game, but Panionios announced that not only would the Iranian team play, but would even open in the first eleven. The players tried to explain that this would cause a storm at home, but their club answered: "Professional footballers must respect their contracts. We did not take you to Tel Aviv, but the fate of the European season is on the line here. You’re in”.

The Game and the Protest

In the game itself, Shojaei and Hajsafi played very well, wore wrist bands in the colors of the Iranian flag, but failed to help their team win. In those exact minutes, the real action took place in Iran, or more precisely - on social networks. Many Iranian fans began to express their opinion about two Iranians who plays an Israeli team, and the hashtag #Shojaei_Hajsafi became viral.

While many expressed their unrest from the situation, others asked about their professional future in the national team. The stormy debate quickly reached the Iranian Football Association (IFA), as well as the country’s authorities.

The IFA announced that the case would be investigated, and that a solution will reach after talking with the two. Mohammad Reza Davarzani, the deputy minister of sports have said that both players "did not respect the principles of the Islamic republic by playing with the representative of the Zionist occupier in Palestine," and that they “must be banned for life from the national team”. In addition, the subject became an easy fetch for other local politicians who tried to attract public attention by calling for the players to be banned.

Those who have not aligned themselves with the Iranian establishment and authorities were the fans and Iranian soccer community. Many Iranian fans - in the country and the diaspora – have expressed great support for Shojaei and Hajsafi, encouraging the authorities to remove the threats from the two and not to mix politics with sports.

In the second stage, senior soccer players & charachters joined the effort to prevent the players’ ban. Sardar Azmoun (an Iranian top talent), Jahanbakhsh (who plays for AZ in Holland), Mehdi Taremi (from champions Persepolis), Farhad Majidi (captain of Esteghlal Tehran) and the Ali Karimi – the “Persian Maradona”, who played in Bayern Munich and now coaches Naft Tehran – have all expressed their support and appreciation for the two players and demanded: “Leave them alone, we want them in the team”.

The fans, who felt the momentum on their side, started a massive social media campaign under the hashtags #SaveShojaeiAndHajsafi and #NoBan4OurPlayers, in order to prevent Iranian authorities from taking any action against the two players, asking the government and the IFA to keep politics off the football field and let the players remain in the squad. More than 100,000 have expressed their opinion in the matter using those hashtags.

Now What

With the public support, Shojaei and Hajsafi have put the Iranian authorities in trouble. In a football addict country like Iran, banning two very popular national team players - who are totally supported by the public - is not a simple thing, besides the huge damage the country’s worldwide image would suffer.

The Iranian Sports Ministry was quick to retract the senior officials' statements about the punishment for the two, and announced that the responsibility for the entire case of the Iranian association was responsible.

After few days Iran’s football federation has stated it will not expel two Iranian footballers just days after issuing a statement saying it would. The announcement came a day after the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) demanded that Iranian officials explain their decision. 

The final decision on the matter, whatever it may be, is yet to come, but things are moving. For the forthcoming game in the World Cup Qualifications against South Korea, Hajsafi is in the squad, while Shojaei, is left out. The captain hasn't prevailed well in the last fixtures for Iran and his rest, at the his age, is necessary for the rest of his season with Panionios, especially after Iran already secured its spot in the World Cup. In addition, Queiroz decided to play the younger players of his team for the rest of the campaign.

As a country that is involved in every conflict in the Middle East and is in a constant race against Saudi Arabia, Israel and the West, Iran was not afraid of the actual participation of the players in the game against Maccabi Tel Aviv, but of a provocation that one of its competitors to the regional leadership would make following the game. This is why they didn’t cover it before, and did not know how to handle it after.

The story of Shojaei and Hajsafi starts bad, gets complicated later on and continues well. It demonstrates the tensions Iran within itself, as a technological and political developing country and as a strong regional power, whose anti-Israeli and anti-Western line is being tested as long as it keeps progressing.

Whether it’s the women's presence in the stadiums or playing football against Israeli teams – Iranian politics, religion and Persian culture enter the field, creating a clash between the values nd laws of the Islamic republic and the outside world. Moreover, it’s a positive story about football. About its fans and players, their passion for it, and how their sporting spirit defeats the dirty politics, conservatism and prejudice, even in a country like Iran.

The article was first published at the Jerusalem Post Magazine.