President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
By James M. Dorsey
Iranian Prime Minister Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s hopes to spruce up his image through soccer boosted by last month’s defeat of South Korea in a 2014 World Cup qualifier are threatened by gruelling international sanctions that have sparked an exodus of foreign players from the Islamic republic.
Iranian clubs strapped for cash by 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 Mr. Ahmadinejad’s economic policies. Parliament has summoned Mr. Ahmadinejad to explain later this month what legislators called his mismanagement of Iran’s response to the sanctions that has reduced oil exports to a dwindle and his mistaken allocation of limited government-subsidized dollars, including for the import of thousands of foreign cars.
Adding to Mr. 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 team mate Rodrigo Tosi have said they would file a complaint with world soccer 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 that 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 a 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. Mr. Appiah started training with Persepolis earlier this month but has yet to sign his contract.
Teheran 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.
Mr. Queiroz’s departure could dash Iran’s hopes for the 2014 World Cup finals in Brazil and with them Mr. Ahmadinejad’s efforts to employ soccer to brush up his tarnished image.
Iranian soccer officials have tried to stymie the exodus by warning that a lesser quality of soccer 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. Mr. 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 soccer player and fan, Mr. Ahmadinejad has had mixed success in recent years in seeking to increase his popularity by identifying himself with Iran’s most popular sport. Mr. Ahmadinejad last month paid a surprise visit to the Iranian national soccer team’s training camp in advance of the World Cup qualifier against South Korea. He went as far during the visit as shaking the hand of Ali Karimi, one of several players who wore green wrist bands during a 2009 international match in protest of alleged rigging of that year’s presidential election which returned Mr. Ahmadinejad to a second term in office.
The visit, Mr. 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 soccer’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 soccer evokes is only rivalled by that sparked by religion, Iran stands out. "I am not aware of anywhere else with the same passion," said Carlos Queiroz in a recent interview with ESPN.
A US 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,” the cable said.
Soccer represents for autocrats like Mr. Ahmadinejad a double-edged sword that both offers opportunity and constitutes a threat. The funeral last year of a famous Iranian soccer player in Tehran’s Azadi stadium turned into a mass protest against the government of Mr. Ahmadinejad.
Tens of thousands reportedly attended the ceremony for Nasser Hejazi, an internationally acclaimed defender Mr. Ahmadinejad 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 Mr. Hejazi’s criticism of the Iranian president’s economic policies. Mr. Hejazi took Mr. Ahmadinejad in April 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 last year suspended professional soccer matches temporarily to prevent celebrations of the 32nd anniversary of the Islamic revolution from turning into anti-government protests.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.