TEHRAN, Iran: 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 offense.
“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 Hajji 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 recognize 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 Hajji 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.
National team coach Carlos Queiroz said this week that he was delaying naming his squad for the next international fixtures until August 27, with local media speculating he would use the extra time to talk the federation out of banning the players.
Iran face 2018 World Cup qualifiers against South Korea on August 31 and Syria on September 5, although Quieroz’s team have already booked their ticket to Russia.
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 1-0 to exit the competition 2-0 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 won six of their first eight World Cup qualification group matches to secure a at Russia 2018.
But if found guilty by FIFA of government interference, they could be barred from taking part.
Shojaei played 70 minutes in the last match, a 2-0 victory over Uzbekistan in June, while Safi remained on the bench.