Politics

Families of Flight PS752 victims call for cancellation of soccer match with Iran

Families who lost loved ones in the destruction of Flight PS752 are demanding that Canada Soccer abandon its plan to host Iran for a men’s soccer friendly next month in Vancouver.

Spokesperson for victims' association says he feels 'betrayed' by Canada Soccer and Ottawa

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.

Families who lost loved ones in the destruction of Flight PS752 are demanding that Canada Soccer abandon its plan to host Iran for a men's soccer friendly next month in Vancouver.

The families call the planned match a slap in the face and say they want the federal government to refuse to grant visas to Iranian soccer players and those travelling with the team.

"They have no understanding, they have no sympathy, they have no hearts, in my opinion, Canada Soccer," said Hamed Esmaeilion, spokesperson for the association representing families. His wife and 9-year-old daughter died on the flight.

"I feel betrayed by the organization and betrayed by the government ... This is a way to normalize the relationship with the Islamic Republic of Iran. It's called sports-washing."

South Korea's Son Heung-min, centre, fights for the ball with Iran's Shojae Khalilzadeh and Ali Gholi Zadeh, left, in Seoul, South Korea on March 24, 2022. Families of those who died when Iranian forces shot down Flight PS752 say they want to see a planned match in Canada with Iran's team cancelled. (Ahn Young-joon/The Associated Press)

Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) shot down the Ukrainian jetliner with a pair of surface-to-air missiles shortly after takeoff in Tehran in 2020, killing all 176 people onboard, including 85 Canadians and permanent residents. 

Iran has blamed a series of human errors for the downing of the commercial plane. Canada's own forensic analysis found that the IRGC's "recklessness, incompetence, and wanton disregard for human life" was to blame.

A UN special rapporteur went further, accusing Iranian authorities of multiple violations of human rights and international law in the lead-up to the missile attack and its aftermath.

Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corp fired two surface-to-air missiles at Flight PS752, killing all 176 people onboard on Jan, 8, 2020. (Reuters)

Since then, victims' families have faced intimidation, harassment and threats from "threat actors linked to proxies of the Islamic Republic of Iran," according to a CSIS report.

The families say this soccer match opens up the border to the IRGC and they wonder whether Iranian intelligence agents will travel with the team to Canada.

Kambiz Foroohar, a journalist and strategic consultant focusing on Iran, has written that in recent decades most sports clubs in Iran have been "taken over by political or security-military organizations, with former Revolutionary guards holding the top positions."

"Because of football's popularity, there is significant involvement by regime insiders," he wrote on the Middle East Institute's website.

'It wasn't a very good idea' — Trudeau

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told CBC News that arranging the game was not a good idea and that Canada Soccer needs to explain itself. Asked whether the federal government might refuse to grant visas to the visiting Iranian team, Trudeau did not answer.

"This was a choice by [Canada Soccer]," Trudeau told a press conference in St. John's. "I think it wasn't a very good idea to invite the Iranian soccer team here to Canada, but that's something the organizer's going to have to explain."

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada said in a statement that it could not comment on any specific visa requests "without written consent" due to privacy rules. It said that all visitors are "carefully screened" before coming into Canada and can be considered inadmissible for violating human or international rights, or if there are security concerns. 

WATCH: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reacts to news of soccer match with Iran

Trudeau says Canada hosting Iran for soccer match was not a 'very good idea'

1 month ago
Duration 0:28
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said it was Canada Soccer's decision to host Iran for a men's friendly on June 5 in Vancouver, and that the organizers would have to explain their choice.

On Tuesday, Canada Soccer issued a statement defending the decision to stage the match in Canada.

"At Canada Soccer, we believe in the power of sport and its ability to bring people from different backgrounds and political beliefs together for a common purpose," said the statement.

"Iran is one of 32 participating member associations at the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 and Canada Soccer continues to follow all international protocols in staging this match.  We are focused on preparations for our Men's National Team to compete on the world stage."

The destruction of Flight PS752 isn't the only source of questions about the planned June 5 soccer match at B.C. Place Stadium.

Discrimination against women at soccer matches

FIFA, soccer's world governing body, ordered Iran in 2019 to allow women to access its stadiums without any restrictions. Iran promised to end its roughly 40-year ban and changed the rules on paper.

But Human Rights Watch reported that Iranian authorities stopped dozens of women on March 29 from entering a soccer stadium to watch a FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 qualifying match between Iran and Lebanon.

A video on social media appears to show women in front of the stadium alleging pepper spray was used to disperse them after they already had purchased tickets to the game in the city of Mashhad.

The Iranian Football Federation later issued a statement saying that, "due to a lack of preparation," they couldn't accommodate women at the game and that fraudulent tickets were given out by fans. 

Iranian soccer fan Sahar Khodayari, nicknamed Blue Girl, died after setting herself on fire outside a court in Tehran in 2019. Khodayari had been charged after trying to enter a stadium dressed as a man.

'My daughter Reera loved soccer'

Esmaeilion questions why a Canadian government that takes pains to present itself as feminist would want to have anything to do with this team. 

"This government claims they are a defender of women's rights," he said. "They invite Iranian football federation here. They have no respect for women's rights."

His wife Parisa Eghbalian and 9-year-old daughter Reera Esmaeilion died on Flight PS752. Reera played for the Richmond Hill Soccer Club.

Reera Esmaeilion, age 9, playing soccer. She died on Flight PS752 in January, 2020. (Submitted by Hamed Esmaeilion )

"My daughter Reera loved soccer and played the sport every week," he said. "My memory of her love for this game makes this situation even more confusing and difficult to process."

He said there's a double-standard at work in the soccer realm that encourages countries to sanction Russia through sports, but not Iran.

Victims' families have written letters to Canada Soccer and Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly. The families say they have not received a response yet. They're also calling on Canadian players to push back against the game.

Not all Iranian-Canadians are opposed to the game. One reached out to CBC to say he welcomes the opportunity to go to the stadium with his family to watch his native country play a match against his home country, and noted that tickets for the game are nearly sold out. He said he did not want his name published, citing concerns about negative repercussions.

He said in an email that because there restrictions in place in Iran that prevent women from attending soccer stadiums, this match in Canada is an opportunity for many families and women to safely watch the team play.

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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