The two players blended in with the rest of their teammates on the Greek club team Panionios of Athens, save for something they wore on their wrists. Both from Iran, Masoud Shojaei and Ehsan Hajsafi sported wristbands featuring their homeland’s flag.
The accessory was subtle, going unnoticed by most fans of the Greek team, but to many Iranian hard-liners watching Friday’s Europa League qualifier against the Israeli side Maccabi Tel Aviv from home, the wristbands were blinding.
By even playing in the match, Shojaei, who last month petitioned the government to allow women in soccer stadiums, and Hajsafi put their national careers at risk. By making sure they represented Iran while doing so made them public enemies in their homeland.
“Shame on you Ehsan and Masoud,” Iranian news agency Raja News declared, according to the BBC.
Shojaei and Hajsafi broke a long-standing precedent that forbids Iranian athletes from competing against Israelis.
On Friday, the Associated Press reports, Iran’s soccer federation issued a statement noting it “strongly condemns” Shojaei’s and Hajsafi’s decision to play against Maccabi.
“Undoubtedly, proud Iranian athletes have always shown that they have no interest in competing against the occupying Zionist regime,” continued the statement, which the federation posted to its website in Farsi, “even at the Olympic Games and World Cup.”
The statement continued, noting the federation will “thoroughly examine the full extent of the matter,” while Iran’s sports ministry said the players will be “dealt with according to the rules.”
That could mean the players, who together have participated in over 70 games with Iran’s national team, including several World Cup fixtures, could be suspended or even banned.
This would not be the first time an Iranian national team banned someone for choosing to compete against Israel. In February, the country’s national chess team kicked a 15-year-old boy off the team for taking on an Israel opponent. His sister was banned for not wearing a hijab.
“Unfortunately, what shouldn’t have happened has happened,” Iranian Chess Federation President Mehrdad Pahlevanzadeh told the semiofficial Fars News Agency at the time. “Our national interests have priority over everything.”
It is not unusual to see Iranian athletes abstain from or forfeit competitions against Israeli athletes.
For example, during last summer’s Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Iranian judoka Alireza Khojasteh withdrew because of “personal reasons,” but it is widely thought that his decision was based on the possibility of facing an Israeli opponent.
Most recently, karate competitor Majid Hassaninia withdrew from a January competition in Paris to avoid meeting an Israeli opponent in the first round.
“Even though I had personally paid all the fees for my participation in the contests and wished to assess my preparedness in the designated weight division, what is of paramount importance to every Iranian athlete is his/her beliefs plus support for the defenseless Palestinian nation,” Hassaninia said (via Iran’s PressTV).
Shojaei and Hajsafi did not travel with Panionios to Tel Aviv for the first leg of the match last week. It’s unclear what changed for the players to make them compete Thursday, as neither player has commented since Thursday’s loss, which eliminated Panionios from the tournament.
Not everyone condemned Shojaei and Hajsafi, however. Several people online, many of whom identified as Iranian, lauded the players’ decision to play against the Israeli team.
✊ | The Iranian community supports Masoud Shojaei & Ehsan Hajsafi for playing vs. Maccabi Tel Aviv. Sports has no place for politics. pic.twitter.com/0mSCMPTurf
— Persian Football (@FootballPersian) August 4, 2017
— رادمان (@daniyal_76) August 5, 2017