DUBAI: Iran’s national football team have faced ridicule over the large amount of luggage they were carrying shortly after arriving in Beirut for their Qatar 2022 World Cup qualifier match against Lebanon.
The team landed at Beirut International Airport on Monday for the match on Thursday. Soon after touching down, images quickly spread on social media of Iranian players, administrators and coaching pushing airport trollies stacks with three or four large travel bags each.
The photos were accompanied by a barrage of comments ridiculing the players. Some even suggested the team could be smuggling drones and military equipment to the Iran-backed militia of Hezbollah.
Activists, bloggers and media and public figures joined in the frenzy.
One cynical Twitter user posted images in response of opened bags with cash inside and a comment saying the money was being smuggled to Hezbollah.
Others tweeted that since Hezbollah controls Lebanon’s borders and airports, the players may have dodged security checks to smuggle military equipment into the country.
In a reflection of Lebanon’s political divides, some social media users tweeted their support for the Iranian team and apologized for what they described by “politically motivated tweets.”
Some boasted that as Shia Muslims that they would cheer for Iran against their own country during the match at the Rafik Hariri Stadium in Saida.
Lebanon are riding high in third place in their World Cup qualifier group after a thrilling 3-2 victory over Syria in October. Iran are the group’s leaders.
Renowned Lebanese playwriter and actor, Ziad Itani, criticized the social media campaign against the Iranians and described it as “shameful and disguised” racism.
“It is a sports mission accustomed to their special food and training equipment, so there is no need for what happened … we don’t want our national team to face the same,” he said.
A Lebanese Football Association official told Arab News: “We are a sports body and Iran’s team came to play a football game … we don’t comment on issues that are obviously related to politics. Any team is free to bring as much luggage as they need.”
A security officer at Beirut International Airport, who spoke to Arab News on condition of anonymity, denied the team had sidestepped the normal security procedures.
“Any visitor is free to bring the luggage he or she needs, as long as they don’t contain illegal items,” the official said, adding that sports teams usually carry extra luggage and equipment.
However, the speculation caused such a stir that Interior Minister Bassam Mawlawi contacted the head of airport security requesting an official investigation into the security checks and oversized luggage.
On Wednesday evening, Lebanese media reported that the contents of the bags was sports equipment and food for 10 days, and that Iran would be heading to Jordan after their game in Beirut.