Rock and a hard place

A German player refuses to play against Israel – because he was born in Iran. But Ashkan Dejagah, who has dual nationality, has picked up sympathy in some unexpected places, as Paul Joyce explains

Tattooed on the neck of VfL Wolfsburg midfielder Ashkan Dejagah is the motto “Never forget where you’re from”. On his right forearm is the word “Teheran”, the German spelling of the city where he was born in 1986; on his left “Berlin”, where he grew up and played for Hertha. Not that anyone will forget where he comes from after he withdrew from a Germany Under-21 game against Israel in Tel Aviv in October. “There are political reasons for this,” he told the paper Bild. “Everyone knows I’m a German-Iranian.”

The dual national’s decision drew sharp criticism from the Central Council of Jews in Germany, who accused him of “initiating a personal Jewish boycott” and “sympathising with a despot”. Their calls for Dejagah to be excluded from the national squad were echoed by Christian Democrat general secretary Ronald Pofalla and other politicians.

The German Football Association (DFB) also came under fire, when it emerged that Dejagah’s withdrawal had been approved by both Under-21s coach Dieter Eilts and sport director Matthias Sammer. “We accepted Dejagah’s excuse too quickly,” stated DFB president Theo Zwanziger. “He can’t say, ‘Today I’m Iranian, tomorrow I’m German,’ to suit himself.” Passing the buck on to the player, Zwanziger announced that Dejagah would only be selected for future internationals if he could convince DFB officials that “his thoughts were free of prejudice”.

With the Iranian magazine Goal praising Dejagah’s decision as “heroic and masterful”, he was also accused by the German press of bowing to pressure from his father to switch to playing for Iran – even though Dejagah was no longer eligible, having represented Germany after his 21st birthday.

Dejagah broke his silence to claim that he had been misquoted and that his withdrawal was for “purely personal reasons”. As Iran has banned its citizens from visiting Israel since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, the dual ­passport-holder feared that his journey to Tel Aviv could lead to reprisals against himself, relatives in Iran and his parents, who ­regularly visit Tehran.

Iranians are banned from competing against Israelis. Mehrdad Minavand became the first Iranian in over 20 years to play against an Israeli side during Sturm Graz’s 3-0 home win over Hapoel Tel Aviv in July 2000, but refused to travel to the away leg “out of respect for my country”.

Other Iranian athletes develop fortuitous injuries. Vahid Hashemian pulled out of Bayern Munich’s 2004 Champions League tie at Maccabi Tel Aviv with a sudden back strain after the Iranian news agency ISNA declared that there would be “consequences” if he played. Having been drawn against Israel’s Ehud Vaks at the Athens Olympics, judo world champion Arash Miresmaili turned up overweight and was disqualified. The Iranian government rewarded him with $125,000 on his return. Perhaps Dejagah was just being too honest. “If I’d have lied and it had come out, it would have been worse,” he explained. “I don’t want to con anyone.”

In Israel, former national coach Schlomo Scherf was not alone in sympathising with Dejagah. “This is a dilemma that only few 21-year-olds could cope with, let alone say something about which could have a positive effect,” agreed Efraim Zuroff of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem.

Indeed the German political and football hierarchies seemed all too willing to single out Dejagah for failing to find solutions to ethical problems that had also defeated them. Before the 2006 World Cup, German politicians spent months disagreeing about whether first the Iran team, and then President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, should be refused entry to the competition and the country in the light of the latter’s inflammatory statements about the Holocaust. “If players like Dejagah don’t have the strength to stand alone against the entire Iran­ian establishment, then we can hardly cudgel them with ­morality,” argued Omid Nouripour, an Iran-born German Green MP.

After meeting with Dejagah on October 16, DFB president Zwanziger declared himself satisfied that the player’s decision to withdraw had not had any racist or anti-Semitic background. He added that Dejagah was now prepared to play in the home tie against Israel if selected and that, if faced with another Tel Aviv quandary, the midfielder would tell his father that “he had duties as a German international”.

Acknowledging failings in his association’s integration of youngsters with a migrant background, Zwanziger stated that the DFB would now make dual-nationality players aware of the potential conflicts awaiting them and broaden their knowledge of German history. “But things that don’t work in many schools and kindergartens can’t be solved overnight by football,” he warned. 

From WSC 250 December 2007