Iranian Footballer in Germany: I Won’t Play Israel

We’re all used to the idea of the sporting boycott; from Moscow 1980 right up to calls for us to give Beijing 2008 the cold shoulder. But this is something a little different; the one-man boycott. An Iranian-born player in … Read More

By / October 11, 2007

We’re all used to the idea of the sporting boycott; from Moscow 1980 right up to calls for us to give Beijing 2008 the cold shoulder. But this is something a little different; the one-man boycott.

An Iranian-born player in Germany's under-21 national soccer team has withdrawn from an upcoming match against Israel citing "personal reasons", the German Football Association (DFB) said on Monday.

Ashkan Dejagah, 21, who plays for Bundesliga club VfB Wolfsburg, asked national team managers to allow him to withdraw from Germany's European Championship qualifier against Israel, to be played in Tel Aviv on Friday, the DFB said.

"He came to us citing personal reasons that seemed very plausible," DFB spokesman Jens Grittner said.

Dejagah could not be reached for comment, but tabloid daily Bild quoted him as saying his motive was political. "It has political reasons. Everyone knows that I am German-Iranian," he said of the decision to withdraw.

Not surprisingly, given German sensitivities towards Israel, this has caused something of a shitstorm. The following day, Dejagah was rowing back at some speed, claiming that there was no political angle to his decision; he was just worried that the Iranians wouldn’t let him back in the country to see his relatives (“I have more Iranian blood in my veins than German… I am doing this out of respect – after all, my parents are Iranian.”) Why he imagined that appealing to football fans to think of his bigoted parents would smooth things over isn’t entirely clear, but it’s safe to say it cut little ice.

This is not the first time that Iran’s refusal to allow its citizens to visit Israel has thrown up sporting dilemmas. A couple of years ago, the Iranian striker Vahid Hashemian, who played for Bayern Munich, developed a convenient back injury just before a trip to play Maccabi Tel Aviv in the European Champions League, having been threatened with sanctions by the Iranian Football Federation if he played. (He contrived to miss the return match in Germany, too.) And an Iranian judo champion refused to fight his Israeli opponent at the Athens Olympics in 2004, falsely claiming that he was over the weight limit for the bout. (I would have thought the mullahs would have liked to watch him beat the shit out of the Jewish guy, but I guess not.)

Dejagah’s withdrawal from the national squad has posed some awkward questions, not least because he is widely regarded as one of the rising stars of German football, which is increasingly tapping into the talents of its large immigrant and ethnic minority populations; players in German youth teams are as likely to be of Turkish or African parentage as they are to be archetypally blond and Teutonic. Reaction hasn’t been uniformly hostile; some lauded his ‘bravery’ for not feigning injury or unfitness, like the other sportsmen mentioned above; others cautioned against imputing bigoted motives to the player himself, noting – not without justification – that the real villains of the piece are the bigots in Tehran.

But for a nation that prides itself on its close links with Israel, there are ugly undercurrents in this standoff, and allegations of anti-Semitism have not been slow to rear their heads. Jewish groups, as well as conservative politicians, have condemned the player’s decision in the roundest possible terms, and the President of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Charlotte Knobloch, demanded his exclusion from the national side. They’ve now got their wish. Dejagah has today been permanently suspended from the German national team and Germany has even gone so far as to propose a friendly between the two nations to show there are no hard feelings.

This will upset the Iranians, who labelled him a “hero” earlier this week: but I think we can all agree that they can go and fuck themselves. The wider question Germans are asking is whether this episode holds any lessons for their own society, which has, in common with other European nations, seen large-scale immigration from Muslim countries in the last couple of decades. Right-of-centre newspaper Die Welt posed the question in what, for a European broadsheet newspaper, were quite stark terms:

The young man has revealed an important dilemma in the immigration society. There are many immigrants … who maintain a completely functional relationship to their new home. … They often demand full civil rights but then, after they get them, they still feel foreign. And they often feel a deep loyalty to their old home and to the blood in their veins. 

In more naive times this double orientation was lauded as enriching society: two identities… were better than one. Dejagah has now emphatically shown that unclear loyalties can be a danger to a free society.

The details of this saga will soon be consigned to history, and the player himself will no doubt be welcomed with open arms by the Iranian national side in due course. But the fault lines in European societies are there for everyone to see, and it doesn’t take that sharp a blow to expose them. When the pluralist values of a European social democracy collide with the iron laws of an intolerant theocracy, it’s not a match where anyone really wins.

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