'Iranian footballers banned for political protest' ran the headlines. James Montague investigates what really happened

It was the image that encapsulated a nation’s struggle for freedom: 11 stern-faced Iranian footballers, some wearing prominent green armbands, huddled together on a foreign pitch while their homeland burned, moments before a crucial World Cup qualifier. Tehran had been in the grip of street protests following the country’s heated presidential elections, won by the hardline Mahmoud Ahmadinejad but contested by the reformist-leaning Mir Mohammad Mousavi. With the regime wildly thrashing about to restore order, the players appeared to be expressing their feelings about the crisis moments before they took on South Korea.

The team, including the mercurial figure of Ali Karimi, wore their green bands allegedly in support of the opposition; a silent, understated symbol of rebellion. It didn’t go unnoticed – the story of their defiance went global. But that was nothing compared to the outcry that followed when a pro-government newspaper reported that those involved in the protest would be banned from playing for the national team for life. Worse, their passports would be seized. Cue a barrage of damning news stories from Sydney to Sana’a detailing how Iran’s authorities were stamping down on dissent from every quarter. The problem was, according to Afshin Ghotbi, the team’s American/Iranian coach, none of it was true.

“None of these players has been banned,” the coach told WSC. “I did ask about the armbands and they said the same thing [that it was a religious symbol]. I respected that. After the game the technical department didn’t know anything about them or asking them to take them off.”

With the game minutes away, Ghotbi noticed the armbands but was told by Karimi they were in honour of a revered Shia cleric. Ghotbi re­vealed that Karimi still maintains that was the case and that none of the players was asked to take off their bands at half-time. Of course, this could be down to not wanting to upset his boss.

Ghotbi has a number of reasons to be careful. For one, he’s an American citizen who, although easily the most popular man for the job, has upset many within Iranian football. Worse, he’s an American citizen that actually spied for the enemy: Ghotbi was a scout for Team USA when they famously lost to Iran at France 98. Still, his ascent to the top job in Iran has been remarkable: from American exile to the Iranian championship with Persepolis to the national team job in a handful of seasons. But even though he came within eight minutes of pulling off an astonishing feat – an 82nd-minute equaliser by Ji-sung Park ending their World Cup dream – he still failed in getting Iran to the finals and was effectively out of a job. And you don’t piss off prospective employees by airing dirty laundry in public. It has since been announced he’ll take charge of the team for the big Asian Cup push and possibly towards qualification for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

Less easy to explain is the response from the German football clubs for whom several of the accused players turn out. A spokesperson for VfL Bochum, where star striker Vahid Hashemian plays, explained that the player was returning to Germany as normal and that the story about passport seizures and international bans had been fabricated.

This isn’t the first political controversy to blight Iranian football. Ahmadinejad wrapped himself in the team’s colours before the 2006 World Cup, using the team as a symbol of national unity. FIFA suspended Iran after political interference, thought to stem from Ahmadinejad, was detected in the sacking the head of the IFF (Iranian Football federation). And yet the players are off limits. Iranians will sledge their heroes mercilessly, but they remain their players, public icons occupying a rare public space that can be discussed, dissected and abused without fear of government reprisals. Which makes the ban all the more confusing.

The players singled out, especially Karimi and team captain Mehdi Mahdavikia, have long histories of injuries, are in their 30s and were threatening to retire anyway. FIFA has asked for clarification as to whether these retirements were forced but the affair seems less an example of football Stalinism than the hubris of a small pro-Government newspaper trying to engineer propaganda, blown out of proportion by the world’s media.

The real proof comes with the next big squad selection: November’s Asian Cup qualifiers against Jordan. “I will speak to them both [Karimi and Mahdavikia] on a one-to-one basis,” Ghotbi added unequivocally, dismissing claims he has been ordered not to pick dissenting players. “The national team door is always, always, open to them.”

From WSC 271 September 2009

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