Monday, January 02, 2006

Iran Under Friendly Fire

Gabriele Marcotti, Times Online:
It has long been a tenet that politics and sport do not mix. There is an unwritten “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that enables us gleefully to stage the 2008 Olympics in a country with a laughable human rights record (particularly when that country, China, has more than one billion potential consumers salivating over Western goods).

Yet if, in football terms, the powers-that-be at Fifa have a decidedly non-judgmental stance, the individual federations that comprise the game’s governing body are a different issue, as Iran is finding out. READ MORE

The Iranians had been keen to arrange several high-profile friendlies before this summer’s World Cup. Yet its approaches to top European and South Americans sides have been met with, at best, embarrassed silence, and, at worst, flat-out rejection.

As always, the problem is political. Iran’s President, the lovable Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is a public relations nightmare right now, largely because everything he says seems to be offensive to most of the civilised world, such as suggesting that Israel be wiped out immediately, that the Holocaust is a myth and that all Jews be deported to Europe.

He also has a peculiar definition of fine art, as he showed last month when he wondered: “Is there an art form more beautiful, more divine, more eternal than martyrdom?”

He makes Robert Mugabe look like Robert Redford. Given such views it is no surprise that most heads of state would rather contract venereal disease than be found in the same postcode as Ahmadinejad. And that is the thought that sends chills down the spines of football administrators everywhere: What if we organise a friendly against Iran and this nutter shows up? What if he approaches our own head of state with a big smile and an outstretched hand? Then what?”

Apparently, that is what happened with Romania, which, under pressure from its foreign ministry, turned down Iran last month. Other countries, reportedly including Spain and Switzerland, simply have not responded, despite repeated requests from the Iranian Football Federation.

We have contacted some top opponents to play them on March 1 and we are just waiting for their reply,” Branko Ivankovic, the Iran coach, told an Iranian website. “We are ready to take them on home and away.”

Well, just in case nobody at the Iranian FA bothered to tell Ivankovic, he will not be Switzerland on March 1 because they will be at Hampden Park taking on Scotland.

Mohammad Dadkan, the director of the Iranian FA, denied that his country was being frozen out. Yet a source familiar with Iranian football insists that Dadkan, an apolitical man, is worried by Ahmadinejad’s antics.

Already, the whole affair is taking on ugly tones. Wolfgang Overath, the German footballing legend, World Cup winner and Cologne chairman, called for Iran to be thrown out of the World Cup. In a statement backed by his country’s Green Party, he argued that Ahmadinejad’s views violated German law on Holocaust denial.

But then Ahmadinejad seems to be going out of his way to rankle the Germans. The English-language state-run newspaper, Tehran Times, published an article by Horst Mahler, a former Baader-Meinhof member who moved from the far Left to the far Right and now calls the Holocaust “the biggest lie in history”. In it, Mahler praised — who else? — Ahmadinejad for his courage and wisdom.

All of this has little or nothing to do with football, but it is proving to be a massive headache for both the Iranians and the Germans. The former simply want to play football but now find themselves struggling to find anyone to play against. The latter want to keep all the political posturing under wraps, maintaining the World Cup is a “politics-free” zone, something that is far easier said than done.

The irony is that footballing relations between Germany and Iran are actually very good. Several top Iranian footballers play in the Bundesliga, including Ali Karimi, the Asian Footballer of the Year, and a surprising addition to Bayern Munich. Indeed, Bayern will be going to Tehran next month to face his old club, Persepolis, in a friendly. One thing of which you can be sure is that, if Ahmadinejad shows up at the stadium, the Bayern officials are going to leg it in the opposite direction, while praying there are no photographers around. Right now, he is the man nobody wants to be seen with.