Protests grow over Canada playing, funding soccer with Iran

Families of Canadians who died when the IRGC shot down Flight 752 in 2020 have led the call on the government to refuse visas or cancel the game.

By Batya Jerenberg, World Israel News

Protests are growing in Canada over the impending friendly soccer match with Iran’s national team  in Vancouver June 5 that the national soccer federation is even reportedly funding.

One of those leading the charge to cancel the game is Hamed Esmaeilion, spokesperson for the Association of Families of Flight PS752 Victims. The Ukrainian Air passenger plane was shot down minutes after takeoff from Tehran on January 8, 2020 by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).

Among the 176 dead passengers and crew were dozens of Canadian citizens and residents, including Esmaeilion’s wife and young daughter.

Saying he feels as if he and the other families have “been stabbed in the back,” Esmaeilion asked rhetorically, “What kind of friendship do we have with the Islamic Republic of Iran?”

“We want the government to take them to international court,” to seek justice for the victims, he added. “And instead of that they invite the [Iranian] soccer team here.”

Canada and Iran have had no formal diplomatic relations since 2012. Moreover, according to experts and media reports, the IRGC, which controls large swathes of the Iranian economy to fund its malign activities, also holds sway over the Iranian Football Federation.

Esmaeilion said IRGC officials will be coming with the Iranian team and demanded that the government refuse to issue visas to them.

“This is a danger for national security in this country,” he said.

When asked about “the slap in the face” the families feel about the event, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau last Tuesday did not relate to the visa issue. Instead, he deflected blame to the federation overseeing the country’s national team.

“This was a choice by Soccer Canada,” Trudeau said. “I think it wasn’t a very good idea to invite the Iranian soccer team here to Canada. But that’s something that the organizers are going to have to explain.”

In another twist that has outraged Canadians, Iranian team manager Hamid Estili told the Tasnim news agency that the Canadian federation would be funding the entire trip to the tune of $400,000.

In what he called a “success for our national team,” he said all the costs of accommodation and transportation only add up to $200,000. This meant, he continued, that the Iranian side could use now use the extra cash “to arrange the next games” to train for the 2022 World Cup.

Whether the IRGC would pocket the money instead is an open question.

Soccer Canada is largely subsidized by the Canadian government, B’nai Brith Canada CEO Michael Mostyn noted.

“Only a few years ago, Iran killed Canadian civilians in the PS 752 flight shootdown,” he said. “The notion that the victims’ surviving family members would indirectly pay through their tax dollars for the Iranian soccer team’s visit to Canada is an affront to our values.”

Since the IRGC is “widely recognized as a terrorist entity,” the government can refuse the necessary visas, the Jewish organization contended. “The decision to prevent the Iranian team from playing in Canada ultimately rests with Ottawa.”

Soccer Canada has responded to the furor by saying it “believes in the power of sport and its ability to bring together people with different political backgrounds and ideas for a common goal.”

Meanwhile, Estili himself has been pictured  partying with an Iranian intelligence official who is wanted in the U.S. for being part of a 2021 plot to kidnap prominent Iranian opposition activist Masih Alinejad from Brooklyn, as well as three individuals from Canada.

Alinejad has called on Twitter for the Canadian government to cancel the game, and “don’t give a visa to those associated with kidnappers.”