Families who lost loved ones in the downing of Flight PS752 are demanding that Canada Soccer scrap plans to host Iran for a friendly men’s soccer match next month in Vancouver.
The families call the scheduled game a slap in the face and say they want the federal government to deny visas to Iranian soccer players and those traveling with the team.
“They have no understanding, they have no sympathy, they have no heart, in my opinion, Canada Soccer,” said Hamed Esmaeilion, spokesman for the association representing the families. His wife and 9-year-old daughter died during the flight.
“I feel betrayed by the organization and betrayed by the government… It’s a way to normalize relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran. It’s called sport-washing.”
Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) shot down the Ukrainian airliner with a pair of surface-to-air missiles shortly after taking off from Tehran in 2020, killing all 176 people on board, including 85 Canadians and permanent residents.
Iran blamed a series of human errors for shooting down the commercial jet. Canada’s own forensic analysis found that the IRGC’s “recklessness, incompetence and blind disregard for human life” were to blame.
A UN special rapporteur went further, accusing the Iranian authorities multiple violations of human rights and international law before the missile attack and its aftermath.
Since then, the families of the victims have faced intimidation, harassment and threats “threat actors linked to proxies of the Islamic Republic of Iran”, according to a CSIS report.
The families say the football match opens the border to the IRGC and they wonder if Iranian intelligence agents will travel with the team to Canada.
Kambiz Foroohar, journalist and strategic consultant specializing in Iran, wrote that in recent decades, most sports clubs in Iran have been “taken over by political or military security organizations, former Revolutionary Guards occupying the highest positions”.
“Due to the popularity of football, there is significant involvement of 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 hosting the game was not a good idea and that Canada Soccer needed to explain itself. When asked if the federal government could deny visas to the visiting Iranian team, Trudeau did not answer.
“It was a choice of [Canada Soccer]”, Trudeau said at a press conference in St. John’s. “I think it was not a very good idea to invite the Iranian football team here in Canada, but it is something that the organizer will have to explain.”
WATCH: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reacts to announcement of Iran soccer match
On Tuesday, Canada Soccer issued a statement defending the decision to host the game in Canada.
“At Canada Soccer, we believe in the power of sport and its ability to bring people of different backgrounds and political beliefs together for a common purpose,” the statement read.
“Iran is one of 32 Member Associations participating in the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 and Canada Soccer continues to follow all international protocols when hosting this game. We are focused on preparations for that our men’s national team can compete on the world stage.”
The downing of flight PS752 isn’t the only source of questions about the June 5 football game at BC Place Stadium.
Discrimination against women in football matches
Football’s world governing body FIFA ordered Iran in 2019 to allow women into its stadiums without any restrictions. Iran has vowed to end its roughly 40-year-old ban and changed the rules on paper.
But Human Rights Watch reported that Iranian authorities on March 28 prevented dozens of women from entering a football stadium to watch a FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 qualifier between Iran and Lebanon.
A video on social media appears to show women outside the stadium alleging pepper spray was used to disperse them after they had already bought tickets for the match in the city of Mashhad.
The Iranian Football Federation later issued a statement saying that, “due to a lack of preparation”, it could not accommodate women at the match and that fraudulent tickets had been distributed by supporters.
Iranian soccer fan Sahar Khodayari, nicknamed Blue Girl, died after setting herself on fire outside a Tehran court in 2019. Khodayari was charged after trying to enter a stadium dressed as a man.
“My daughter Reera loved football”
Esmaeilion wonders why a Canadian government that cares to present itself as feminist would want to have anything to do with this team.
“This government claims to be a defender of women’s rights,” he said. “They invite the 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 Richmond Hill Soccer Club.
“My daughter Reera loved football and played the sport every week,” he said. “My memory of his love for this game makes this situation even more confusing and difficult to manage.”
He said there is a double standard at work in football that encourages countries to sanction Russia through sport, but not Iran.
The families of the victims have written letters to Canada Soccer and to Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly. The families say they have not yet received a response. They are also asking the Canadian players to postpone the match.