Can soccer change the world? Mahmood Ebrahimzadeh, an Iranian international who played for his country in the Fifa World Cup, believes it can.
Ebrahimzadeh is one of a network of retired Iranian soccer players now living in exile and urging global support for the uprising currently rocking the country’s theocratic regime. The group is preparing a joint letter to Joe Biden calling for the president and the US to help the Iranian people just as they are helping the people of Ukraine.
“A lot of actors, a lot of singers, a lot of soccer players in the world are supporting the movement in Iran right now,” said the 69-year-old, who lives in Woodbine, Maryland. “The only people that need to come to the same line are the governments, European and American.”
Spontaneous protests have erupted in Iran over the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish woman detained by the country’s morality police for allegedly wearing a hijab headscarf in an “improper” way. Scores of people have been killed and hundreds arrested over three weeks.
The upheaval vibrates within Ebrahimzadeh, whose political activism disrupted his soccer career in Iran in the 1970s. He played as a striker for the national team – “I think it was 15 times,” he says – including World Cup and Olympic qualifying matches. But after the 1979 Islamic Revolution brought chaos and oppression, he felt his dissident views froze him out of the national team.
Finally, in 1982, when the team’s coach invited Ebrahimzadeh back to play in the Asian Cup, the regime saw an opportunity to seize him along with two other players. “They captured those two,” he recalled. “They put them in jail and then they killed one of them.
“I had the chance to run away in the night-time and go and meet my wife and my son Maboud, who was nine months old. We left through Kurdistan and we left the country. It was hard, 10 days and nights walking through the mountains in snow, 20 degrees minus, and we were not familiar with the roads. No passport or nothing.”
The family crossed the border into Turkey, then went on to Germany, which – despite a language barrier – Ebrahimzadeh recalls as “heaven” compared to the freezing Zagros Mountains.
He said Germans’ learning he was a soccer pro “was the key to open all the doors” for him.
He went on to play for renowned German club VfL Wolfsburg and proved a prolific goalscorer. He moved to the US in 1986 and joined a Chicago indoor team, but a broken leg forced him into premature retirement. He ran a US-based soccer school for AC Milan before becoming a traveling representative for the Italian club, then directed Olympic development programs in Maryland.
Ebrahimzadeh is still in touch with at least 20 Iranian former soccer players living in America and Europe who, like other prominent figures, are showing solidarity with the protesters in Iran.
Ali Karimi, an ex-Iranian captain and Bayern Munich player now based in Dubai, was charged in absentia by Iran over social media posts supporting the protests, including on Instagram, where he has nearly 12m followers. Ebrahimzadeh reflected: “They’re supporting the young generation in the streets. They’re supporting human rights. They’re supporting the movement right now.”
The political potency of soccer was evident last year when England’s players took the knee during the European championships to express support for racial justice after the 2020 murder of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white police officer in the US.
Ebrahimzadeh noted that some current members of the Iranian national team have also spoken out at great personal risk. “On social media they said this is not the way to treat the people, this is their right, this is their choice. The government has to respect them and killing is not the solution. You have to open up democracy further.”
But the government crackdown under hardline president Ebrahim Raisi has been draconian. Ebrahimzadeh continued: “Anybody that speaks out against the government and supports the woman’s movement right now, they capture them, they put them in jail.
“Of course non-soccer players, regular people, they can kill easier. They can hardly kill soccer players or singers or actors but they put them in a jail and that’s happened to a couple of the national team players.”
Ebrahimzadeh said reports of a 16-year-old soccer player being jailed were enough to bring him to tears.
The Iranian government seeks to restrict TV coverage of European soccer leagues in Iran, but the big clubs still have a following. Ebrahimzadeh called on Fifa, the sport’s world governing body, to play its part by barring Iran from the World Cup finals in Qatar. The team’s campaign is to begin against England on November 21.
He likened the move to sporting organizations suspending Russia from competition after the country’s invasion of Ukraine.
“Fifa knows that the federation of Iran and all the clubs [there] are controlled by military generals,'” he said. “A bunch of terrorists is running a federation that is part of Fifa.”
Leaderless, protean and durable, the protests go on, largely fueled by the middle and upper classes. They pose the biggest threat to the authoritarian government since the 2009 green movement brought millions to the streets.
Ebrahimzadeh, who last visited his homeland five years ago, said he dreams of an Iran free from Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s regime.
In order to realize that dream, he wants America to focus on human rights in Iran rather than negotiations to restore a nuclear deal struck under President Barack Obama which, he fears, would release tens of millions of dollars to Tehran.
“Don’t pay them,” Ebrahimzadeh said. “The money that they release from here is going to be weapons, bullets and killing our young kids over there.”
Instead he wants to see the US rally the international community and “support the people” by pressuring Iran’s regime through boycotts.
“We need action,” Ebrahimzadeh said. “We need them to stand up for us.”