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Iranian soccer players could face lashing after victory groping

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TEHRAN — Two Iranian soccer players who engaged in “inappropriate” celebratory behavior during a game broadcast on national television might face public lashings on the pitch, the semiofficial Fars News Agency reported Tuesday.

Members of parliament, sports officials and judges have called for the “swift punishment” of Mohammad Nosrati and Sheys Rezaei, two soccer stars who play for one of Iran’s most popular clubs, Tehran-based Persepolis.

After one of their teammates scored the winning goal of a 3-2 match on Saturday, ending a long losing streak, Nosrati pressed his hand into Rezaei’s behind as they and their teammates jumped on one another in celebration.

As millions watched on television, Nosrati appeared to be trying to push his hand between Rezaei’s buttocks. It remained unclear Wednesday whether Rezaei had engaged in a similar action earlier in the game.

Iran’s football federation immediately suspended both players for an unspecified period and fined them nearly $40,000 each, Fars reported. According to the federation’s Web site, the ban is indefinite because a final decision cannot be made until “other authorities” are consulted.

A judiciary official told Fars that Nosrati and Rezaei could also face public lashings, to be carried out on the soccer pitch where the behavior occurred.

According to the norms of ultra-conservative Iran, the players’ “action can be considered a violation of public chastity,” Judge Valiollah Hosseini told the news agency. “The punishment of this crime is prison up to two months and 74 lashes.”

“It is even worse to do these actions before the eyes of thousands of spectators and TV cameras,” Hosseini added.

Social values and norms have changed profoundly in Iran over the past decade, amid a rise in living standards, access to the Internet and social networking media, and more connections in general to the outside world.

The increased openness has triggered a backlash, with the country’s ruling Shiite Muslim clerics doing all they can to control public spaces and state TV and to make an example of those who step out of line. As public figures, athletes and actors have to walk a tightrope, although they are not part of the Islamic establishment.

An actress was recently sentenced to lashing for appearing in a movie without a head scarf; that punishment was later revoked. Last week, a soccer player was forced to cut his long hair on the pitch before playing in a match.

Iranian soccer stars say the authorities are overreacting to the latest indiscretion. Ali Parvin, a former Persepolis coach and a venerated figure in Iranian soccer, has spoken out against banning Nosrati and Rezaei, saying that officials should offer guidance to the players instead of punishing them.

“Come and execute them if it relieves you,” he said sarcastically.

Former national team player Mehdi Mahdavikia said Iranian media were making a big deal out of the incident.

“When I was playing in Germany, such things happened all the time,” he said.

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