Final whistle for Iranian soccer players who faced Israel?

Two Iranian soccer players have been at the center of a media storm in their country following their participation in a game last week where they broke their homeland’s protocol and played against Israelis.

Ehsan Haji Safi and Masoud Shojaei, the footballers from the West Asian country, competed as part of their Greek club team, Panionios, in Athens against Israel’s Maccabi Tel Aviv and the initial reaction from Tehran was to drop the two midfielders from the national team.

Iran’s Deputy Sports Minister Mohammad Reza Davarzani told state television that Shojaei and Haji Safi have no place on Iran’s national football team any longer and was adamant that the two would not wear the national uniform again.

“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,” he said.

The Shiite government of Iran does not recognize the State of Israel. The countries have no diplomatic ties and Iranian leaders have often vowed to destroy Israel. It is not unusual for Israelis to face prejudice in the international sporting arena, but Iran’s Foreign Ministry has suggested that their athletes who play abroad should have a clause written into their contracts exempting them from participating in any sporting event where Israelis are taking part.

“This is an illegitimate regime which we don’t recognize,” the spokesman for the ministry said of Israel.

At the time the two players committed the crime of playing against Israel, the Iran Soccer Federation vice president, Ali Kafashian, said that the men should have chosen to terminate their contracts instead, as the Islamic Republic takes the stance that any interaction with Israel — including facing its players in sports — means recognition of the Jewish state.

In a Foreign Policy committee meeting specially convened on Sunday, the Iranian parliament denounced Shojaei and Haji Safi.

“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,” a committee spokesman declared.

Support for the Iranians came flooding in from many places including from their colleagues and former Iranian players. Even the Israeli Foreign Ministry welcomed the Iranian players’ decision on their @IsraelPersian twitter account:

“Well done to Masoud Shojaei and Ehsan Haji Safi who broke the taboo of not playing in matches against Israeli athletes.”

Critics of the regime say that placing a ban on competing against Israel has hurt Iranian athletes and halted their progress. Boycotting competitions where Israeli athletes are participating damages Iran. The supporters of the Islamic republic, however, insist that ideology supersedes sports.

Immediately, on hearing of the fate of the players, thousands of Farsi speakers, including citizens of Iran, called on the FIFA soccer federation to impose sanctions on Iran. This led to an inquiry by FIFA where the world soccer governing body asked for clarification on the status of the players.

Two days after decrying the footballers’ actions, Iranian sports officials denied that they had sacked the players. It appears that the captain, Shojaei, 33, and Haji Safi, 27, one of the team’s up-and-coming stars, are safe and have not been punished.