A group of current and former Iranian sportspeople say they have no choice but to turn on their own country, citing what they called state-sponsored violence and discrimination against ordinary Iranians, especially women.
The group, containing former champions in sports such as karate, judo and wrestling, including those living in exile and based in their homeland, are taking a stand.
Last week, in conjunction with a Spanish law firm, they sent a letter to world soccer’s governing body FIFA demanding their own country be withdrawn from next month’s World Cup.
“Iran is different to any other country,” former wrestling world junior champion and national team coach Sardar Pashaei told Reuters.
“A football federation should be independent, but in Iran it’s a joke. Everything is controlled by the Revolutionary Guards – the Revolutionary Guards are recognised as a terrorist group by the US..
“We contacted FIFA and we said enough is enough. We believe that Iran is killing protesters. They should be banned until we have a democratic country like any other country in the world.”
FIFA declined to comment on the letter when approached by Reuters and the Iranian authorities did not respond to requests for comment on the allegations made against them.
In one of the boldest challenges to Iran’s clerical leaders since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, mass protests have continued for seven weeks in the country, despite a deadly security crackdown and increasingly severe warnings.
Iranian authorities have accused the Islamic Republic’s arch-enemies the United States and Israel and alleged local agents of being behind the unrest to destabilise the country.
The protests were sparked by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in September after she was arrested by the Iranian morality police for attire deemed inappropriate.
GETTING THE MESSAGE OUT
Former karate champion Mahdi Jafargholizadeh, who says he was tortured by state authorities in 2004 before later escaping while in Germany, highlighted the main reason why he believes there has not been more worldwide attention on Iran.
“Football is the best way to share our voices,” he told Reuters. “There is absolutely no internet connection between inside and outside of Iran, so how could people hear us?
“One of the important reasons for banning this football team by FIFA is everybody across the world will ask, ‘What happened to Iran?'”
In 2019, for the first time in nearly 40 years, several thousand women were allowed into a stadium in Iran to watch a football match played by men, with FIFA remaining in dialogue with the Iranian government to ensure this can become the norm.
But it remains common practice for Iranian women to be turned away or banned from attending matches – something Jafargholizadeh said should give FIFA power to act.
“If FIFA start to admit the Iranian federation aren’t following the law, then at least stay behind your words,” he added. “You (FIFA) say any discrimination is not within the law. Women are not allowed to go to football stadiums in Iran, or play without a hijab.
“This is exactly discrimination against a gender, so stay behind your word.”
Prominent former Iran national soccer team players Ali Daei and Ali Karimi have also backed the protests, but have stopped short of calling for a ban on the national team due to its popularity.
The Ukrainian FA on Monday appealed to FIFA for Iran to be banned, accusing Tehran of supplying weapons to Russia to help with its ongoing invasion of Ukraine.
Russia calls its actions in Ukraine a “special operation” to eliminate security threats, but FIFA moved to suspend Russia from competing in international competitions earlier this year, ruling the nation out of the World Cup.
The Iranian athletes who wrote to FIFA want a repeat of such punishment.
“What is the difference between Iran and Russia?” Pashaei said. “Russia attacked Ukraine, killed people, so it was the right decision they got banned – the same should happen to Iran.
“They (other countries) don’t play Russia, so it wasn’t just FIFA, it was the other athletes, other countries. I really urge them not to compete against the Iranian regime and send this message to FIFA, that the regime, which has killed innocent people, doesn’t deserve to be at the World Cup.”