A storm has erupted in Iran. A hashtag titled “NoBan4OurPlayers” has been launched. The nytimes is one of the few mainstream media outlets that devoted a report to this issue. It may look like a sports issue, but it is far from it.
Two players on Iran’s national team, Ehsan Hajsafi & Masoud Shojaei, were banned for life from playing for their country after they dared to play against an Israeli team. Playing for their Greek club team, Panionios, they played against the Israeli team Maccabi Tel Aviv, in the UEFA Europa League. Iran’s deputy sports minister, Mohammad Reza Davarzani, announced that they would not be invited to join the national football team again, due to them “crossing the red line”.
The “red line” he is referring to is most probably Iran’s long standing rule prohibiting Iranian athletes from competing with Israeli athletes. Most probably a result of the fact that Iran does not recognize Israel and refuses to give any legitimacy to Israeli symbols, including athletes.
The mix of “politics in sports” is not new in Iran, in full and open defiance of FIFA rules. The new factor is the online public response it generated. An amazing popular and wide spread dissent arose this time. Iranian soccer fans have taken to social media, openly condemning and reproaching Iran for the decision.
An Iranian soccer fan, Hushang Mirza, stated “I am wholeheartedly hoping for FIFA to deprive Iran from participating in the World Cup for banning Shojaei and Haji Safi”. A fan by the name of Moeen Farrokhi stated “This is ridiculous. There is no law against playing against Israelis. It’s a decision for every athlete to make for him or herself. They weren’t even playing for Iran, but for their club that invested in them”.
The responses on twitter are many and harsh. It has been spotted as a trend on hashtagsmania.
Omid Mamarian tweets “Iran’s banning of 2 national players 4 respecting club obligations and playing w/ Israeli team is unfair and insane”. Maktpoub tweets “Banning soccer players from Iran’s national team for respecting their club obligations is outrageous”. Pishipishi00 requests FIFA to take action against Iran for banning the players just for playing against Israelis. Black Opium declares “politics has no place in sports. Sport is a mean to bring people together, not divide them”. Some connected this issue to the “Say no to racism” campaign, launched on soccer fields.
The most astonishing aspect of this phenomena is not the courage of the young generation, but the lack of attention of the older generation. The lack of any FIFA response. The lack of wide spread coverage of this item in mainstream media. After all, this item goes beyond sports or the destiny of two Iranian footballers. It touches on the legitimacy of the Iranian regime, the disconnect between the regime and the people, and the issue of how far the international community is going to ignore gross violations of international accords just to “accommodate” Iran. The people are drawing the lines.