James M. Dorsey
Hürriyet Daily News
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s aspirations to boost his image by clinging onto his people’s everlasting passion for football is being threatened by grueling international sanctions. High-profile players leaving the country, while referees and top team coaches could also join the exodus
Iran’s Mohammad Reza Khalatbari tries to dribble past a Lebanon defender. Itanian President Ahmadinejad (inset) is trying to use football to boost his image. AFP photo
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s hopes to spruce up his image through football are threatened by grueling international sanctions that have sparked an exodus of foreign players from the Islamic Republic.
Iranian clubs strapped for cash due to the international sanctions imposed to force Iran
to compromise on its controversial nuclear program are finding it difficult if not impossible to pay foreign players’ salaries. The clubs’ financial difficulties have been aggravated by the collapse of the Iranian rial, which last month alone lost a quarter of its value.
The collapse was sparked by the sanctions as well as Ahmadinejad’s economic policies. Parliament has summoned Ahmadinejad to explain later this month what legislators called his mismanagement of Iran’s response to the sanctions that have reduced oil exports to a dwindle and his mistaken allocation of limited government-subsidized dollars, including those for the import of thousands of foreign cars.
Adding to Ahmadinejad’s problems is the fact that several players who have left Iran, including premier league club Esteghlal FC top midfielder Fabio Januario of Brazil
and compatriot and teammate Rodrigo Tosi, have said they would file a complaint with world football body FIFA. German-born Iranian-German player Under-21 international Ferydoon Zandi has also left his ancestral homeland for greener pastures in Qatar. An Iranian sports reporter
said former premier league club Persepolis FC coach Ali Daei was also considering complaining to FIFA about the club’s failure to pay his backlogged salary.
Iranian referees have also encountered recent problems in getting paid by the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) for work performed at international matches. The AFC found in September that it could not transfer $1 million to the Football Federation of the Islamic Republic.
“There is no basis whatsoever for the American
government to black our money. We are an NGO and have nothing to do with politics. We have approached the AFC and several other organizations to persuade the Americans to release our money, which we are desperate to have, to no avail,” FFIR president Ali Kafashian was quoted as saying.
It was not immediately clear whether former Ghana captain Stephen Appiah was having second thoughts. Appiah started training with Persepolis earlier this month but has yet to sign his contract.
Tehran daily newspaper 7Sobh warned that the players “are not only not coming back but there will also be further consequences.” The Iranian Student’s News Agency (ISNA) hinted that foreign coaches, including premier league club Persepolis’ FC’s Portuguese trainer Manuel Jose and Portuguese national team coach Carlos Queiroz could follow suit.
Queiroz’s departure could dash Iran’s hopes for the 2014 World Cup finals in Brazil
and with them Ahmadinejad’s efforts to employ football to brush up his tarnished image.
Iranian football officials have tried to stymie the exodus by warning that a lesser quality of football in the Gulf, to which most of the foreign players are re-locating, means that their chances of playing international tournaments will be reduced.
“The players are moving to these countries for economic reasons but because proper training regimes are not in place there, the quality of their play is deteriorating,” Malaysia’s Sun Daily quoted Esteghlal coach Hamid Ghalenoei as saying. Ghalenoei’s warning is countered by the fact that Iranian midfielder Andranik Teymourian, who plays in Qatar, remains part of Iran’s national team.
A passionate football player and fan, Ahmadinejad has had mixed success in recent years in seeking to increase his popularity by identifying himself with Iran’s most popular sport. Ahmadinejad last month paid a surprise visit to the Iranian national football team’s training camp in advance of the World Cup qualifier against South Korea. During the visit, he went as far as shaking the hand of Ali Karimi, one of several players who wore green wristbands during a 2009 international match in protest of the alleged rigging of that year’s presidential election, which returned Ahmadinejad to a second term in office.
The visit, Ahmadinejad’s third in recent years, echoed attempts by deposed presidents Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, Zine El Abedine Ben Ali of Tunisia and Abdullah Saleh of Yemen to exploit football’s prestige in a bid to shore up their popularity in the years before their overthrow in 2011.
In a region in which the passion football evokes is only rivaled by that sparked by religion, Iran
stands out. “I am not aware of anywhere else with the same passion,” said Queiroz in a recent interview with ESPN.
A U.S. embassy cable disclosed by Wikileaks noted in 2009 that “President Ahmadinejad has worked hard to associate himself with Iran’s beloved national team – ‘Team Melli’ – a tactic that backfired in March when he was accused of ‘jinxing’ the team, which suffered a last-minute defeat to Saudi Arabia just after Ahmadinejad entered the stadium. That event, coupled with an unexpected loss by the national wrestling team with Ahmadinejad in attendance earlier in the year, set off a firestorm of SMS messages and internet jokes holding the president personally responsible for the teams’ defeats.”
Football represents, for autocrats like Ahmadinejad, a double-edged sword that both offers opportunity and constitutes a threat. The funeral last year of a famous Iranian football player in Tehran’s Azadi stadium turned into a mass protest against the government of Ahmadinejad.
Tens of thousands reportedly attended the ceremony for Nasser Hejazi, an internationally acclaimed defender who was perceived as a critic of the president. In a rare occurrence, some 1,000 women were allowed to be present during the ceremony.
Mourners chanted “Hejazi, you spoke in the name of the people,” in a reference to Hejazi’s criticism of the Iranian president’s economic policies. In April, Hejazi took Ahmadinejad to task for Iran’s gaping income differences and budgetary measures which hit the poorest the hardest. The mourners also shouted “Goodbye Hejazi, today the brave are mourning,” and “Mr. Nasser, rise up, your people can’t stand it anymore.”
Following in the footsteps of Arab autocrats confronted with mass protests, Iran
suspended professional football matches temporarily last year to prevent celebrations of the 32nd anniversary of the Islamic revolution from turning into anti-government protests.
Mustafa Denizli: Link Between Iran, Turkey
Mustafa Denizli is the most remarkable link between the Turkish and Iranian football scenes.
Turkey’s most decorated coach has managed Iran’s Pas FC and Persepolis for several periods between 2006 and 2012.
He led Pas FC to a runner-up finish in the league and a quarterfinal run in the Asian Champions League in 2006 and coached Persepolis to a third-place finish the following year.
After returning to Turkey, the İzmir-born 62-year-old was picked by Persepolis again last year.
However, he could only lead the team to 12th in the league, the worst record in the club’s history. On June 22, 2012, he stepped down as coach of Persepolis due to family problems.
Denizli is the only coach in Turkey to win the national title with three different teams: Galatasaray, Fenerbahçe