Politics

Canada Soccer cancels controversial exhibition game against Iran

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

Iran's deputy minister of sport now seeking $10M in penalties from Canada Soccer

South Korea's Son Heung-min, centre, fights for the ball with Iran's Shojae Khalilzadeh and Ali Gholi Zadeh, left, in a qualifying soccer match for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar earlier this year. Canada's planned warm-up game against Iran in Vancouver has now been cancelled. (Ahn Young-joon/The Associated Press)

Canada Soccer says it is cancelling a controversial exhibition game against Iran initially set for next month in Vancouver, saying it has become "significantly divisive."

"Over the past week, the untenable geopolitical situation of hosting Iran became significantly divisive, and in response, the match was cancelled," said Canada Soccer in a statement issued Thursday evening.

"While we considered the external factors in selecting the optimal opponent in our original decision-making process, we will strive to do better moving forward."

The soccer organization said it "has the best of intentions" in arranging the international match for June 5 as part of Team Canada's preparations for the FIFA World CUP in Qatar later this year.

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)

But the decision to host Iran 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 said it would conduct a "throughout review" of its "processes for hosting international matches" and consult with stakeholders moving forward. Victims' families said Canada Soccer never responded to their letters asking about the match.

The soccer organization said it's looking for a new opponent for the game and is working to get refunds to those who bought tickets for the match, which was almost sold out when it was cancelled.

Sina Kalhor, Iran's deputy minister of sport, tweeted late Thursday that he's seeking $10 million in damages from Canada Soccer, saying the organization broke its contract by cancelling the game. 

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.

WATCH | Canada Soccer paying Iran's team for match:

Canada Soccer cancels controversial match against Iran

1 month ago
Duration 2:08
Officials at Canada Soccer have cancelled an exhibition game against Iran’s team that was scheduled for Vancouver in June, saying it’s become ‘significantly divisive’ after families of the victims in Flight PS752's downing urged the organization to call off the match.

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.

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

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.

WATCH | Victims' families want match called off:

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

1 month ago
Duration 2:04
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.

Corrections

  • A previous version of this story contained a photo of Hamid Estili, head of the Iranian national soccer team, and Mahmoud Khazein, who is wanted by the FBI, and incorrectly stated the photo was taken this year. In fact, the photo appears to have been taken in 2018 and the extent of any relationship between the two men is unclear. The photo has been removed along with a reference to it in the story.
    Jun 03, 2022 1:20 PM ET

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ashley Burke

Senior reporter

Ashley Burke is a senior reporter with CBC's Parliamentary Bureau. Have a story idea? Email her at ashley.burke@cbc.ca

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