Iranian sports minister claimed that Tehran tried to foil the plot of the UK as the team was knocked out of the World Cup.
The United Kingdom allegedly plotted for the Iranian national football team to defect on the field during the World Cup in Qatar, the Islamic Republic’s minister of sport and youth said on Tuesday, without providing any evidence.
Hamid Sajjadi, Iran’s sports minister, told the Iranian parliament that the country’s enemies attempted “the height of sedition,” and that the “Old Fox,” referring to the UK, had planned for Iran’s players to walk off the field at specific times and defect, The guardian reported.
According to Sajjadi, Iranian authorities foiled the plot. He was willing to back up his claims in private, presumably as part of a failed attempt to prevent a vote of censure by MPs for the state of the national game after the team was eliminated from the tournament after losing 1-0 to the United States in Doha.
Many prominent Iranian footballers have been harassed by state security services for their support of the country’s protests, but this was the first time a minister claimed there was a plot to destabilise the Islamic Republic on the pitch at the tournament.
Sajjadi comments came as an Iranian chess player, Sara Khadem, arrived in Spain on Tuesday after receiving what a source close to her said were warnings not to return to Iran for competing without a hijab at an international tournament in Kazakhstan.
The 26-year-old Khadem competed in last week’s FIDE World Rapid and Blitz Chess Championships in Almaty, Kazakhstan, without wearing a hijab, which is currently mandatory in Iran.
The source also said her relatives and parents, who are in Iran, had also received threats, without giving further details, Reuters reported.
Although the sports minister’s claims’ have no evidence, they came as the men’s national team struggled with competing pressures from protesters and officials.
Despite his claims, the sports minister was censured by the parliament, which accused him of paying foreign-based players and coaches massive salaries.
Iran’s national team protests
Over the past three months a number of Iranian footballers have been publicly threatened and harassed by authorities in Tehran.
Ali Karimi, a former Iran national captain, was forced to flee the country after expressing support for the protesters on social media, and all of his properties and assets in Iran were confiscated by judicial order. Ali Daei, the football manager, has also been barred from leaving Iran.
The team faced immense pressure and widespread bad-mouthing at the stadium during the group stage games at the World Cup, as well as from fellow Iranians online due to their meeting with Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi prior to Team Melli’s departure to Qatar.
Shortly before the tournament, Iran’s national team manager said players are free to participate in the nationwide women’s rights protests that have blanketed their home country while competing in the World Cup in Qatar, but they must do so in accordance with the tournament’s regulations.
Heading Iran for a third time at a World Cup, Carlos Queiroz at the time said “everybody has the right to express themselves” given they follow the FIFA rules.
In reference to athletes who protest against racial inequality in England, he said at the time: “You guys bend your knees in the games,” adding that “some people agree, some people don’t agree with that, and Iran is exactly the same,” according to reports.
For months, Iran has been rocked by protests triggered by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini who died while in police custody, sidelining Iran’s World Cup attention.
Amini was visiting Tehran when she was arrested by morality police on charges of failing to wear the hijab in accordance with government standards. She later died in hospital, with Iranian police maintaining she died of natural causes, while her family claimed she was tortured and killed.
Since the outbreak of protests across the Islamic Republic, athletes, including football players in the local league and international competitions, have refused to celebrate victories, prizes, and goals.
During a friendly with Senegal in Maria Enzersdorf in September, Iran’s national team made clear its solidarity with the most recent protests in the Islamic Republic.
Standing arm in arm on the pitch, the players wore plain black jackets to cover their national symbols as the national anthem was played at the stadium.
Described as “brave”, the team’s act of solidarity came as protests raged across Iran, where hundreds of thousands demonstrated against the government following the death of Amini.
The team’s forward Sardar Azmoun spoke out on the decision to protest the government’s brutal crackdown on his social media page, saying it is worth any consequences that may arise.
“At worst, I’ll be dismissed from the national team. No problem. I’d sacrifice that for one hair on the heads of Iranian women. This story will not be deleted. They can do whatever they want. Shame on you for killing so easily; long live Iranian women,” Azmoun wrote.
Elsewhere, Iranian beach football player, Saeed Piramoon, mimicked cutting his hair after scoring in the Emirates Intercontinental Beach Soccer Cup final, showing brazen support for the demonstrations sweeping his home country.
The gesture reflected the ongoing movement by many individuals cutting their hair to testify their solidarity with Iranian women.