An Iranian fan reacts to his team's defeat during the 2019 AFC Asian Cup semi-final football match between Iran and Japan in Al-Ain on January 28, 2019. Photo: Giuseppe Cacace / AFP

Iran’s fatal downing of a Ukrainian passenger jet earlier this month has reverberated to the world of soccer, chipping away at the Islamic Republic’s right to host matches against its Asian neighbors.

On January 18, the Asian Football Confederation sent a letter to four Iranian clubs competing in the 2020 edition of AFC Champions League, notifying them that they would be banned from hosting their home games inside Iran, and that these matches had to be moved to neutral venues.

The governing body of soccer in Asia cited “security concerns” in explaining why the Iranian sides were denied their hosting rights.

There was little doubt that the fatal downing of a civilian aircraft belonging to Ukraine International Airlines on January 8 – killing all 176 passengers and crew onboard – and the subsequent cancellation of dozens of Iran-bound flights and tours was the main justification behind the AFC decision.

Multiple airlines, including Lufthansa and Austrian Airlines, provisionally suspended their services to the Iranian capital and dozens of other carriers started avoiding Iran’s airspace and re-routing their flights, citing an “unclear security situation.”

The decision also followed the US assassination of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani on January 3, in response to which Iran launched retaliatory missile attacks against US military bases in Iraq on January 8, and – hours later – carrying out the fatal passenger jet shoot-down.

The Football Federation Islamic Republic of Iran’s initial response to the AFC was defiant, branding the decision “illegal” and “politically motivated” and announcing that all the four squads participating in the Asian tournament would withdraw unless they were permitted to host matches in their home stadiums.

The AFC is headed by a member of the Bahraini royal family, whose policies are kept in lockstep with powerful neighboring Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia has refused to allow its teams to set foot on Iranian soil since a mob attack on its Tehran embassy in 2016 resulted in a rupture of relations between the two states.

“I can imagine many countries around the Persian Gulf rushing to the AFC a few hours after the plane incident trying to get the most out of it,” said Faraz Shahlaei, an expert on international sports law and a doctoral candidate at Loyola Law School.

Nevertheless, any political underpinnings of the decision pale in comparison to legitimate security considerations after Iran acknowledged that the downing of the Ukrainian flight was attributable to “human error,” he said.

“The decision has strong security justifications and this alone can outweigh other arguments … Shooting down a passenger plane for whatever reason resulted in massive loss of civilian life, so the incident is scary enough to justify the ban,” he told Asia Times.

Many Iranian soccer fans and commentators are of the opinion that AFC favors certain nations, namely the wealthy Arabian Peninsula states, over others. But they also blame Iranian soccer and sports authorities for failing to gain influence in the continental body.

“Unfortunately, Iran has not been able to establish good relationships with AFC and FIFA in the recent years. If we take a look at other countries, we’ll realize that Iran, despite the power of its football, has not taken firm steps in sports diplomacy,” Mahyar Mirzapoor, a soccer journalist based in Tehran, told Asia Times.

$30,000 fine threat

Shortly after the AFC announcement, Iranian authorities raised the possibility of lodging a complaint against the Asian soccer body to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, claiming that the ban was “unathletic.” They likely realized, however, that the procedure would be too time-consuming to reinstate the Iranian clubs’ hosting rights or safeguard the four clubs against possible penalties in case they decided to withdraw from the games.

In accordance with the AFC Champions League 2020 Competition Regulations, a participating club that withdraws from the event after it has commenced can be fined up to US$30,000, “be referred  to the AFC Disciplinary and Ethics Committee,” which may impose additional discretionary sanctions, and be barred from taking part in the next two rounds of the competition.

Were the case to have ended up in front of the Court of Arbitration for Sport,“the AFC or FIFA would most probably be the winner, having a robust security justification for their decision,” said Shahlaei.

On January 23, the managers of the four Iranian clubs: Persepolis FC, Esteghlal FC, Sepahan SC, and Shahr Khodro FC; accompanied by Iran’s vice minister of sport and youth, traveled to Kuala Lumpur to meet AFC General Secretary Dato’ Windsor John in a bid to change the Confederation officials’ minds and secure a reversion of the ruling.

Following the meeting, the AFC announced that two Iranian teams, Esteghlal FC and Shahr Khodro FC, agreed to play their preliminary stage ties on January 25 in a third country, the United Arab Emirates. AFC added that the home matches of Iranian clubs on days one, two and three “will be rescheduled to be played as away matches.”

Though the AFC retreated from its initial decision that none of the Iranian clubs’ matches would be played on Iranian soil, the Iranian teams also backed away from their original plan of boycotting the competition.

Esteghlal and Shahr Khodro played their home games against Kuwait SC and Al Riffa in the preliminary stage in the United Arab Emirates, despite claims by Iranian media that submitting to such a verdict would be tantamount to violating the national dignity of Iran.

Shortly after the meeting, Maziar Nazemi, the spokesperson for Iran’s Ministry of Sport and Youth, took to Twitter, touting the “grand deal” that “smartly and precisely” salvaged Iran’s national soccer team and reassured fans. He used a hashtag reading “Iranian grandeur” in Persian to embellish his tweet.

Iranian social media users scolded him, however, saying no victory had been gained and there was nothing to celebrate.

Farhad Majidi, manager of Esteghlal FC, complained that even the “neutral” venues to which Iranian teams’ home games were relocated were unfair, forcing his players to bounce around the region between games due to an ongoing boycott of Qatar by the UAE.

“My players boarded two flights after their [Dubai] match to get to Qatar. This happened in less than 24 hours,” he said.

“If AFC was informed about the problems in Iran and moved that match to Dubai, it also certainly knows about the flight issues between UAE and Qatar,” he quipped before the Tuesday match against Al Rayyan FC.

Soccer and politics

The latest AFC decision speaks to the snowballing isolation Iran has been living through since the United States pulled out of a landmark nuclear deal in May 2018 and reinstated draconian sanctions. The impact of those sanctions have filtered down to the sports world, resulting in multiple departures of foreign coaches as Iran’s cash-stripped soccer clubs have found themselves unable to pay salaries. 

In December 2019, Esteghlal FC’s former Italian manager Andrea Stramaccioni unilaterally canceled his contract with the Iranian squad only eight months after being appointed to the role. He supervised the team for 15 matches and resigned from his post over the club’s failure to pay his wages and those of the other coaching staff.

Marc Wilmots, the Belgian manager who was appointed as the head coach of Iran’s national soccer team in May 2019, departed Iran in December, only after six games with Team Melli, and filed a suit against Iran’s soccer federation over his unpaid dues.

The Croatian Branko Ivanković and the Argentinian Gabriel Calderón, who successively managed Persepolis FC for five years, also parted ways with the popular Iranian club over the non-payment of their wages.

A range of other sports have been affected by Iran’s political and economic situation.

Several prominent athletes have immigrated from Iran and adopted other nationalities in recent months in search of greater freedoms and better opportunities.

The most notable case is Kimia Alizadeh, the 21-year-old taekwondo athlete who became Iran’s first-ever female Olympics medal winner when she clinched a bronze medal at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. She defected from Iran in the wake of the cover-up and subsequent admission by authorities over the downed Ukrainian jet, and will compete for Germany in the upcoming events. She has ruled out the possibility of returning to Iran.

Shohreh Bayat, a distinguished chess champion who arbitrated the 2020 Women’s World Chess Championship in China and Russia, also said she is afraid of returning to Iran after a photo of her not wearing her headscarf strictly while presiding over a third-round match in Shanghai circulated on social media. Iran has stringent codes for women’s dressing and “offenders” are usually penalized.

Saeid Mollaei, an Iran-born judoka Olympian and 2018 world champion accepted Mongolian citizenship last year after moving to Europe with a two-year visa from Germany.

“If you look outside sports and these athletes, you will find that there are many people trying to migrate from Iran for the social, economic and political problems facing the country at the moment. It’s only natural that these affect sportsmen and sportswomen in Iran,” said Sina Saemian, a sports writer and regular panelist on the Golbezan podcast, which is dedicated to Iranian soccer. 

“In many ways these individuals are in a much better position to migrate than the average person, so they take advantage of that. It is unfortunate because as they have said so themselves, these are forced migrations due to these problems, as they would love to continue to represent their country in their field,” he told Asia Times. 

Should the situation continue, Saemian predicts Iran will only see more of its talented athletes depart in the future.

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