Iranian soccer federation defends star who played with Israel flag on shirt

Hardliners had also slammed Mehdi Mahdavikia for playing in the FIFA friendly match because the opposing coach was an Israeli.

By Batya Jerenberg, World Israel News

Iran’s soccer federation defended one of its all-time stars Wednesday from hardliners who had demanded punishing him for participating in a December 17 match in Qatar where players wore shirts that included the Israeli flag, and whose rival team was coached by an Israeli.

Mehdi Mahdavikia was “one of the greats of Iranian football” and “a symbol of pride for the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Hassan Kamranifar, head of the Football Federation Islamic Republic of Iran, said in a statement on the organization’s website.

Writing that the Federation had spoken with the athlete, who had captained the national team for three years and is currently the head coach of the country’s U23 team, Kamranifar decried the attacks against the star as being “unfair.” He added that that Mahdavikia had been “vigilant” in his handling of the circumstances he found himself in.

Hardline legislator Bijan Nobaveh-Vatan had told the Fars news agency that Mahdavikia “”must apologize to the Iranian people for his actions and must stand trial because he has betrayed the Iranian nation.”

Iran forbids its athletes from competing against Israelis, and several of its best sportsmen have famously pulled out of matches, especially in judo, when even faced with the possibility that they would have to take on an Israeli in competition.

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The 44-year-old’s defenders pointed out that this particular game was simply a friendly match between an Arab Legends team and a World Legends team that preceded the finals in the FIFA Arab Cup. This made it a “cultural event” rather than an official one. In addition, there were only three players, all from Algeria, who declined to play due to the fact that fabled Israeli coach Avram Grant was leading the Worlds team.

In another line of defense, they said that Mahdavikia had had no choice about the shirt, since soccer’s world governing body had given all the men the same top, in either blue or white, that pictured a column of tiny flags of all the countries that are FIFA members, including Israel. But the Iranian player then crossed out the tiny Israeli flag, as did several other teammates whose countries have no diplomatic relations with the Jewish state.

The Iranian federation’s surprising restraint stands in sharp contrast to its Syrian colleagues, as the Syrian Olympic Committee kicked its star off the national team after he participated in the same match. Feras Al-Khateeb was expelled for “violating the values and ideals of the organization and deviating from its national principles,” it said.