Politics

Canada Soccer is paying Iran's team $400K to play in Vancouver, team official says

Canada Soccer is paying Iran’s soccer federation $400,000 to play a controversial exhibition game next month in Vancouver, according to the head of Iran’s national team.

Canada Soccer facing calls to cancel June 5 exhibition match

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

1 month ago
Duration 2:04
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.

Canada Soccer is paying Iran's soccer federation $400,000 to play a controversial exhibition game next month in Vancouver, according to the head of Iran's national team.

The team's director, Hamed Estili, told Iranian state-affiliated media outlet Tasnim that for the first time in 22 years, Iran's soccer federation will make a profit off a friendly match.

Canada Soccer did not confirm or deny the quoted sum or answer CBC News's questions about where the money is coming from. The organization did say it's normal practice to pay teams for matches like this.

"As is the standard in international soccer, match appearance fees are generally provided to the visiting team to cover expenses that may not be included within the agreement, such as international and or domestic travel, ground costs and insurance," said Canada Soccer in a statement issued to CBC News.

Estili told Iranian media that after it pays for the team's expenses, Iran's soccer federation could bank $200,000 of the payment.

Estili said Iran negotiated with more than 20 other lower-ranked teams to try to arrange exhibition matches — and they all said Iran's soccer federation would have to pay them a fee in order to play.

His comments come as Canada Soccer comes under heavy pressure to call off the nearly sold-out June 5 match at BC Place.

Victims who lost loved ones on Flight PS752 have called the game a slap in the face. Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) shot down Flight PS752 in 2020 shortly after takeoff in Tehran. Surface-to-air missiles took down the Ukrainian aircraft, killing everyone onboard — including 85 Canadians and permanent residents. 

Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart has condemned the game and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said he disagrees with the decision to organize it.

Experts and media reports say the IRGC, the country's elite military force, has taken over sports clubs in Iran directly or indirectly over the past 20 years due to their growing popularity and profitability.

The news outlet Politico reported Tuesday that U.S. President Joe Biden has finalized his decision to keep Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps on the United States' terrorist blacklist.

Canada, unlike the U.S., has only placed a part of the IRGC on its terrorism list — despite a 2018 Commons resolution that called on the federal government to designate the IRGC in its entirety as a terrorist entity.

South Korea's Son Heung-min, centre, fights for the ball with Iran's Shojae Khalilzadeh and Ali Gholi Zadeh, left, during the final round of the Asian zone group A qualifying soccer match for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 at Seoul World Cup Stadium in Seoul, South Korea, Thursday, March 24, 2022. (Ahn Young-joon/The Associated Press)

The federal government said that while it provided more than $3 million in federal funding in 2022-23 to Canada Soccer, that money was not used to pay for this game.

Sport Canada said it was not consulted about the Iran match and that Canada Soccer is an independent organization that did not receive federal funding this year for the men's team.

Canada Soccer did not answer when CBC asked whether any federal resources were used to organize this game.

Prime Minister Trudeau said again Tuesday that he thinks the game "is a bad idea" and distanced his government from the funding.

"I can assure you that Sport Canada has not delivered any funding for this game," Trudeau said at a press conference in Vancouver on Tuesday.

WATCH | Trudeau discusses upcoming match with Iran:

Trudeau discusses Canada Soccer inviting Iran's team to Canada

1 month ago
Duration 0:30
While in Vancouver, B.C., on Tuesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said again that he thinks the game is a bad idea and that no federal funding has gone to it.

Anthony Housefather is the first Liberal MP to join the calls for Canada Soccer to cancel the game. 

He said he's encouraging Immigration Canada to carefully consider whether visas should be granted based on individuals' past history and associations with the IRGC.

"Because I love sports so much, it just chagrined me that we would be, in my view, demeaning Canadian sport by inviting a team from a country that we have no diplomatic relationship with to Canada, when there are so many other countries that we could compete with that we could be proud to have a match with," said Housefather. 

Housefather said that the game serves to condone "a regime that violates human rights and spreads terrorism throughout the Middle East."

Canada Soccer has declined CBC News' repeated requests for an interview since May 16.

"Canada Soccer will continue to follow all applicable federal and international protocols, laws and procedures for hosting the match," the soccer organization said in a statement.

CBC News sports contributor John Molinaro has been covering soccer as a journalist for the past 20 years.

Molinaro said it's normal for countries to make a profit off friendly games and some high-ranking teams command millions. In this case, he said, it appears Canada Soccer only viewed the match as a way for Team Canada to prepare for the 2022 FIFA World Cup and didn't consider the broader political ramifications.

A woman places a flower at a vigil in Toronto on Saturday, January 8, 2022 in memory of the 176 victims of Ukraine International Airlines Flight PS752 that was shot down by Iranian forces two years ago. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

"This is kind of a bit of a get for Canada. It's playing a team that's also going to be playing in the World Cup in Qatar," he said. "I get the sense they probably didn't consider the PR fallout. It would appear to me they only looked at it from a sporting perspective." 

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

Molinaro said it's interesting that Canada is playing Iran for a friendly match around the same time the U.S. is playing Morocco for a similar game. Canada is playing Morocco in the first round of the World Cup in Qatar, while the U.S. is going to play Iran first.

That could mean coaches and scouts from both North American teams could cross the border to see firsthand how their competitors play, said Molinaro.

Housefather, a former athlete swimmer, argues there are other competitive teams Canada could meet that don't come from countries with "horrible" human rights records.

Minister of Sport Pascale St.-Onge said in a statement Tuesday that she understands the announcement "causes pain for the families and loved ones of the victims" and "we are disappointed that Canada Soccer did not take this into consideration."

Corrections

  • A previous version of this story contained a photo of the head of the Iranian national soccer team, Hamid Estili, and Mahmoud Khazein, a man who is wanted by the FBI. The story incorrectly stated that the photo was taken in April 2022. 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 1:11 PM ET

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Nahayat Tizhoosh

Producer with CBC News Network's Power & Politics

Nahayat Tizhoosh is a journalist with CBC News Network's Power & Politics.

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