By Hamed Esmaeilion, chief spokesperson for the Association of Families of Flight PS752 Victims.
The Globe and Mail
When the Canadian men’s national soccer team earned a place in the World Cup for the first time in more than 30 years, I was among the many who celebrated the milestone. But I also have to admit that my excitement quickly dissipated when I looked at the team’s coming schedule. Canada Soccer has invited the Iranian team to play an exhibition game in Vancouver on June 5 – a slap in the face to everyone who has been affected by the January, 2020, downing of Ukraine International Airlines Flight PS752.
I recognize that Canada Soccer is striving to increase the sport’s popularity in Canada, where it lags behind other activities such as hockey. Indeed, it has been wonderful to see the successes of Canada’s national women’s team growing that popularity and attracting a large youth following over the years. My daughter Reera was among the young Canadians inspired by the women’s team, and she joined the Richmond Hill youth club, playing left defence every week in her club’s practice sessions.
But that was before Reera and her mother – my wife Parisa – were killed when the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), a ruthless and destructive military organization, shot down their passenger plane. The incident left them and 174 other passengers dead, many of whom were Canadian.
In Iran, the game is extremely popular – and inherently political. Many Iranians obsessively follow the international and domestic leagues, and posters of famous soccer players, such as Ronaldo and Messi, are often plastered on the bedroom walls of many Iranian youths. But like many activities in Iran, soccer there is controlled by the IRGC, which is expected to send members to accompany the Iranian team to Canada for the exhibition game.
The IRGC’s influence extends to the Iranian Football Federation, which is subject to the powers that be despite its appearance of being independent from the state. Many sports clubs and teams in Iran are managed by individuals with ties to the IRGC, either through past or current involvement. These private sports clubs and leagues thus become yet another avenue for the Iranian government to enact its political and social injustices.
In Iran, women are forbidden from attending sports events or going to stadiums and, when they try, pepper spray and assault usually awaits them – that is, if they are lucky and escape arrest. State broadcasters censor sporting events to avoid showing these contentious actions in foreign broadcasts. It follows, of course, that women’s sports have no place in state broadcasting whatsoever; sports are exclusively for men and are at the service of Iran’s political apparatus that is in power, which has ties with the IRGC.
Given all this, it is shocking that Canada Soccer is inviting the Iranian national team into our country. No one denies the importance of friendly matches and the athletes’ right to practice with diverse opponents. However, this invitation is an affront to those who lost loved ones in the downing of Flight PS752, even as many cases against the IRGC remain open; it is also ignorant of the security and safety of Canadians who have been frequently harassed by Iranian security agencies for years, including the families of victims.
Thirty-two national teams are participating in the 2022 World Cup in Qatar; there are many other opponents Canada Soccer can play instead, if they wanted to keep politics out of sports. And if our country is as serious as it claims about justice and holding countries to account for crimes against Canadians, the game must be called off.
An invitation to Iran’s national soccer federation adds insult to injury for many who have already suffered at the hands of the nefarious IRGC, including all of us who lost family members, friends and colleagues on Flight PS752. As such, Canada Soccer and the federal government need to find ways to intercede and stop this game from happening. It is time we do better for the Canadians hurt by Iran. It is time for justice.