Canada Soccer cancels controversial exhibition game against Iran

Canada Soccer says it is cancelling a controversial exhibition game against Iran set for next month in Vancouver.

The international match — scheduled for June 5 as part of preparations for the FIFA World Cup in Qatar later this year — drew the scorn of the families of those who died aboard Flight PS752 when the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) shot down the plane in 2020.

All 176 passengers and crew members on board the aircraft were killed, including 85 Canadians and permanent residents.

The families said the exhibition match was an insult to those still seeking justice for their loved ones — especially given persistent concerns about the IRGC’s possible ties to Iran’s team.

“We are happy,” said Hamed Esmaeilion, spokesperson for the association representing victims’ families in Canada. “This is the right thing to do … We were worried about IRGC officers coming to Canada, normalizing Canada’s relationship with Iran …”

Canada Soccer made the announcement Thursday on Twitter. It promised to provide additional details to all ticket purchasers. The soccer organization has not yet explained why it cancelled the match or responded to victims’ relatives who have written letters demanding answers. 

Esmaeilion said Canada Soccer is not being transparent and that the public deserves to know why this match was booked in the first place, who was behind it and why it’s being cancelled now.

According to an Iranian state media outlet, Saeed Khatibzadeh, spokesperson for Iran’s foreign ministry, on Tuesday accused Canada of politicizing the upcoming match. Khatibzadeh told Press TV that if the match is cancelled, Canada Soccer would be held responsible for any violations of its agreement with Iran’s team.

CBC News reported Tuesday that the head of Iran’s team said Canada Soccer would be paying Iran’s soccer federation $400,000 for the game.

The team’s director, Hamid Estili, told Iranian state-affiliated media that the payment would mark the first time in more than two decades that Iran’s soccer federation made a profit off a friendly match. 

Canada Soccer did not confirm or deny that quoted amount but said it’s standard practice to pay visiting teams appearance fees to cover expenses.

Canada Soccer received more than $3 million in federal funding this fiscal year. The government says none of that money went toward the match.

Minister of Sport Pascale St-Onge said in a statement to CBC News that the government “commends Canada Soccer for making this decision” and is looking forward to cheering on Team Canada during the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. 

Ukraine’s ambassador-designate to Canada Yulia Kovaliv is now calling on Canada Soccer to have a friendly match with Ukraine’s soccer team instead.

“And 400K could go for humanitarian needs of Ukrainians affected by Russia’s war,” wrote Kovaliv. “I guess it’s win-win.”

The soccer organization was under mounting political pressure to call off the nearly sold-out match at BC Place.

Ralph Goodale, Canada’s high commissioner to the U.K. and Canada’s former special adviser on Flight PS752, tweeted Wednesday that Canada Soccer’s behaviour is “repugnant” and “calls into question both the competence and values of the organization.”

Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart also condemned the game. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said again earlier this week that he thought the game was “a bad idea” and distanced his government from the match and its funding.

| Canada Soccer paying Iran’s team for match:

Canada Soccer to pay Iran’s team $400K for controversial soccer match

There’s growing controversy around a planned exhibition match between the Canadian and Iranian soccer teams set for Vancouver for June. CBC News has reported that Canada Soccer will pay $400,000 to Iran’s soccer federation for the game — and that the head of Iran’s team attended a party with a man wanted by the FBI in relation to an alleged plot to kidnap international targets.

Conservative MPs Matt Jeneroux and Richard Martel called Canada Soccer’s decision to invite and pay Iran’s team “unacceptable.”

“Hosting the Iranian national soccer team as victims of Flight PS752 are still suffering and seeking compensation is reprehensible and will only further serve to legitimize the Iranian regime,” the MPs wrote in a media statement.

Victims’ families also wrote letters to Public Safety Canada officials Tuesday raising concerns about their own security. The Canadian Security Intelligence Service says victims’ families have reported being harassed, threatened and intimidated by proxies of the IRGC.

Hamed Esmaeilion at a soccer match with his daughter Reera, who was also a soccer player. Reera, 9, died on Flight PS752 along with her mother Parisa Eghbalian. (Submitted by Hamed Esmaeilion)

Experts say politics and sports in Iran are intertwined, with the IRGC either directly or indirectly controlling many sports organizations, including soccer clubs. 

As CBC News first reported, photos taken last month show the head of Iran’s soccer team, Hamid Estili, attending a party with an alleged Iranian intelligence informant with ties to the IRGC who is wanted by the FBI.

At the time of the party, a warrant had been out in the U.S. for Mahmoud Khazein’s arrest for almost a year. He was being sought on charges related to a plot to kidnap international targets, including three people in Canada. The FBI is now looking into the matter, according to a person at the centre of the alleged kidnapping scheme.

Estili has not responded to CBC’s request for comment, submitted last week on Instagram.

Longtime sports journalist and CBC News contributor John Molinaro said it appears Canada Soccer only viewed the game as a way for Team Canada to prepare for the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar and didn’t consider the public relations fallout. 

Iran is ranked 21st in the FIFA men’s world rankings. Canada is ranked 38th. 

Esmaeilion said that he now wants the federal government to put the entire IRGC on its list of terrorist organizations, as the U.S. has done. Right now, only a clandestine branch of the IRGC is listed as a terrorist entity in Canada.

| Victims’ families want match called off:

Flight PS752 victims’ families outraged by Canada’s soccer match with Iran

The families of the victims in the downing of Flight PS752 are demanding Canada Soccer cancel a planned game with Iran’s soccer team, saying they feel betrayed by the move.

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