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Iran's Turmoil Spills Into Soccer
Guardian UK, June 24th, 2009 3:15PM
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Iran's political turmoil has spilled onto the soccer field. The country's authorities have reportedly dealt lifetime bans to a group of Iranian players who wore green wristbands in last Wednesday's World Cup qualifier as a symbol of protest against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's disputed re-election. According to the pro-government newspaper Iran, four players - Ali Karimi, 31, Mehdi Mahdavikia, 32, Hosein Ka'abi, 24 and Vahid Hashemian, 32 - are retiring, but speculation is that they are being banned for their gesture in the match against South Korea.

The green wristbands, adopted by demonstrators who believe the June 12 election corrupt, showed symbolic support of opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi. Most of the players obeyed instructions to remove the wristbands at halftime, but Mahdavikia wore his green captain's armband for the entire match. The four are also said to have been banned from giving media interviews. The fate of the other two players who wore the wristbands is still unknown. None of the team members were returned their passports upon returning to Tehran after the match, which ended in a 1-1 draw - a result that ended Iran's hopes of qualifying for next year's tournament.

Iran's hardline media have also linked the protest to Saturday's arrest of Mohsen Safayi Farahani, who headed the country's soccer governing body under the former reformist president, Mohammad Khatami. Hezbollah, a pro-Ahmadinejad website, accused Farahani, a member of the pro-reform Islamic participation front, of bribing the players to wear the protest symbols. Incumbent Ahmadinejad, a known soccer fan, has a historical interest in the sport's affairs. In 2006, Fifa banned Iran from international competition after claims of improper interference by the government. The ban was later lifted.

 

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