Alan Hubbard

Reports that Iran plans to publicly hang a young professional footballer for campaigning for women’s rights and basic human rights underlines my decision made many years ago to give religion a swerve.

The country ruled by despotic zealots who call themselves Ayatollahs seems to have declared war on sporting figures in order to stem the rising tide of dissidence in a land that was once known as Persia, the pearl of the Gulf until a religious revolution which saw the Shah shafted in 1979 and a new state which trades in terror rather than tourism created in its place.

Since then Iran has brought nothing but trouble throughout the world, not least the sporting world.

The condemned footballer, former youth international Amir Nasr Azadani, was arrested in November following the killing of a police colonel at a rally, and accused of "waging war against God", a capital offence under an Islamic law called "moharebeh", although leaders now seem to be denying this. Not that they have much of a track record for the truth.

There have been widespread protests throughout Iran since the death of 22-year-old Mansard Amini, who died in police custody after being detained on suspicion of breaking the country’s strict rules around head coverings for females.

It is still believed that Nasr Azadani will be executed soon, hung from an industrial crane, his body left dangling for days as an example to all, those campaigning for regime change.

This was the fate which befell one of Iran’s most famous Olympians, wrestling champion Navid Afkari, another Government protester convicted on a charge of killing a security guard during protests in 2018. This despite pleas from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the White House.

Afkari was not the first athlete Iran has executed for dissidence. Foruzan Abdi was captain of Iran’s women’s national volleyball team, who was arrested in 1981 while in her early twenties on charges of supporting the opposition group Mojhedin-e Khalq (MEK).

She was sentenced to five years imprisonment but was not released on its completion and instead hanged in Tehran’s notorious Evin jail.

Habib Khabiri, one of their top international footballers was executed by the firing squad for his membership of MEK.

Since the 1979 revolution there have been dozens of others, world champions, Olympians, athletes, footballers and boxers, all on flimsy evidence or none at all.

Protests have been taking place in Iran over the death of Mahsa Amini, with reports suggesting footballer Amir Nasr Azadani could be hanged in public ©Getty Images
Protests have been taking place in Iran over the death of Mahsa Amini, with reports suggesting footballer Amir Nasr Azadani could be hanged in public ©Getty Images

Many athletes have gone into exile after being mistreated by authorities based on their ethnicity, gender, religion or political views.

At the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 five of the 29 athletes and the IOC refugee team were Iranian.

Iran surely now holds the title of the world’s most evil regime, which is saying something when your running mates are Russia, Belarus, China, Afghanistan and Myanmar (Burma that was).

For too long now they have been a disruptive force in global sport, most notably for the policy forbidding athletes to compete against Israelis. 

Iranian competitors are pressured to lose matches or feign injury to avoid match-ups with Israeli opposition, which as the IOC must be aware is contrary to the spirit of sport. 

Many of Iran’s obscenely oppressive measures surely are tantamount to South Africa’s system of apartheid which eventually led to their exclusion from the world’s playing fields, followed by reform.

Alas, there seems no Iranian Mandela to lead them on the long walk to freedom.

Ominously I know of fellow sportswriters who were approached before the World Cup by representatives of Iran warning them that they - and their families - could be in harm’s way if their reporting of Iran’s role in the tournament was considered offensive.

And of course the Iranian team, who signalled their support for women’s rights by not singing the national anthem in their opening game, were warned by Tehran that they faces imprisonment, torture and even the death penalty should they not do so before the next.

That’s life in Iran today. Or more like death. 

So I believe it is time for the IOC, FIFA and all governing bodies to stop wringing their hands, or sitting on them, and kick Iran out of international sport until it the Ayatollahs go, or start, to play the game.