Avram Grant

Iranian and Syrian soccer rocked by participation of Avram Grant at FIFA’s Arab Cup.

By Pesach Benson, United With Israel

One of Iran’s top soccer players, Mehdi Mahdavikia, is surrounded by controversy after playing in a FIFA Arab Cup legends match in Qatar with Israeli coach Avram Grant this month.

The December 17 showcase match pitted Arab vs world legends, with the world team coached by Grant. The Arab team won in a penalty shootout.

Jerseys featured the flags of all of FIFA’s 211 member states. Ahead of the game, a number of Arab players blacked out the Israeli flag appearing on their shirts and three Algerians withdrew themselves from the match. Mahdavikia, 44, who usually plays right-wing, participated.

Iran does not allow its athletes to compete with Israelis. Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has vowed to support any athlete disciplined by international sports for boycotting Israeli competitors.

The Jerusalem Post reported that Iran’s state-controlled media has roundly denounced Mahdavikia.

Kayhan a daily newspaper generally regarded as the most conservative in Iran, slammed Mahdavikia for playing in a match “unrelated to Iran, dressed in the flag of the Zionist regime and against a team coached by a Zionist.” The paper called on him to “openly express his hatred” of Israel, the Jerusalem Post reported.

Iran’s official Fars News Agency took issue with Mahdavikia for not issuing an apology and questioned what it called “silence” from Iran’s Sports Ministry.

Mahdavikia has not spoken publicly about the matter, but he is being defended by Hojatoleslam Alireza Alipour, the former moral charter secretary of the Iranian Football Federation. According to the Post, Alipour maintains that Mahdavikia did indeed cross out the Israeli flag from his jersey.

The Post also reported that Syrian Firas Al-Khatib was kicked off his country’s national team for participating in the same match. The 38-year-old forward is the Syrian national team’s all-time top goal scorer. Khatib defended himself on social media by saying that he removed the flag from his jersey.

It’s not clear how Grant was able to participate in the FIFA Arab Cup, as Israel and Qatar do not have diplomatic relations. Grant, 66, has managed teams in Israel, Europe and Africa.

Grant is no stranger to athletic boycotts. While coaching Ghana’s national team in 2016, Algeria cancelled a friendly match rather than give the Israeli permission to enter the country.

Iran’s Bigoted Boycott Of Israeli Athletics

The best-known examples of Iran boycotting Israeli athletes involve judo, an individual sport in which Iranians frequently excel in international tournaments.

At the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Iran’s reigning world champion judoka Arash Miresmaeili dropped out rather than face Israel’s Ehud Vaks. Miresmaeili, who was widely expected to win a gold medal, currently serves as President of the Iranian Judo Federation.

Other examples include a referee Ahmad Ksanfandi, who refused to officiate a bout involving Israeli Gal Yekutieli at a 2007 tournament in Tbilisi, Georgia. As a result, Ksanfandi was banned from officiating.

For years, other Iranian judokas have also thrown or forfeited matches or feigned injury to avoid matches with Israelis.

It took Saeid Mollaei to shine a spotlight on Iran’s athletic bigotry.

At the 2019 Judo Championship in Japan, Mollaei’s coach conveyed instructions from Tehran to throw a fight in order to avoid competing against Israeli champion Sagi Muki.

Mollaei bested his first opponent. But ahead of a match against Matthias Casse of Belgium, he was approached by someone from the Iranian embassy who threatened Mollaei, informing him that security forces were at his parents’ home in Tehran. Mollaei threw the fight and Muki went on to win the world title.

But instead of returning home, Mollaei fled to Germany, where he obtained asylum. Later in the year, he accepted Mongolia’s offer of citizenship. Mongolian President Khaltmaagiin Battulga also serves as chairman of his country’s judo federation.

In the aftermath, Iran was banned from international judo competitions until 2023.

This December, the International Olympic Committee announced that international sports federations must ensure that all countries can compete in their tournaments. The announcement came after the World Team Squash Championship was cancelled over Malaysia’s refusal to allow Israelis to compete.

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