Iranian footballer breaks silence over ban for playing Israelis
TEHRAN - One of two Iranian footballers threatened with a lifetime ban after playing against an Israeli club broke his silence on Friday, saying he had no intention of causing offence.
"My country has always been and will be my priority," wrote midfielder Masoud Shojaei on his Instagram page.
"I have always tried to work wholeheartedly to be a suitable representative for the country."
It came a week after news he and teammate Haji Safi had been banned for life from the national team for playing in a Europa League qualifier with their Greek club Panionios against Maccabi Tel Aviv.
The Iranian government does not recognise Israel and bars its sportsmen from participating against Israelis in any event, including at the Olympics.
Iran appeared to row back the ban after a huge outcry from football fans on social media and the launch of an investigation by FIFA, which has rules against political interference in national teams.
The ISNA news agency reported that the Iran Football Federation had denied the ban in a letter to FIFA on August 13.
That was despite a statement from Deputy Sports Minister Mohammad Reza Davarzani, saying "Shojaei and Haji Safi have no place in Iran's national football team any more because they crossed the country's red line."
In his Instagram post, Shojaei appeared to respond to critics who said his appearance against an Israeli team had "disrespected" Iranian martyrs.
"I am the child of war and come from a town of sacrifice and resistance," he said, referring to the brutal eight-year conflict against Iraq in the 1980s.
"I well understand the status of those dear ones who gave everything to defend us and God forbid, I will never try to abuse the name, image and sacrifice of these angels," he wrote.
Shojaei and Safi had refused to play in the away leg against Maccabi in Israel, but took part in the second leg in Greece on August 4. It did not help Panionios, who lost 0-1 and 0-2 on aggregate.
Current and former top players, including Ali Karimi and Mehdi Taremi, expressed support for their colleagues, saying they had no choice but to play the game.
But Iran Football Federation vice president Ali Kafashian told the Mizan Online website that they shouldn't have played "even if their contracts would have been terminated."
Shoejaei had already risked the ire of conservatives in June when he called on the newly re-elected President Hassan Rouhani to lift the ban on women spectators in Iranian stadiums.
Iran's national team has been on a winning streak of late, winning six of its last eight group matches to secure a place at the 2018 World Cup finals.
Shojaei played 70 minutes in the last match, a 2-0 victory over Uzbekistan in June, while Safi remained on the bench.