Tehran, Iran – Canada’s men’s national soccer team has pulled out of a soccer game with Iran scheduled for June 5 after pressure from the Canadian government and the families of a passenger plane over Tehran in January 2020.
Canada Soccer, the soccer association that organized the June 5 World Cup pre-season game, said Thursday the game was canceled due to “host Iran’s unsustainable geopolitical situation [had become] clearly divisive”.
“While we considered the external factors in selecting the optimal opponent in our initial decision-making process, we will strive to do better going forward,” it said in a statement.
On January 8, 2020, Ukraine International Airlines flight PS752 had just departed Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport when it was attacked by two missiles fired from an air defense battery operated by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
The elite force said the incident was due to “human error” during a state of alert that followed their missile strikes on US bases in Iraq in retaliation for the US assassination of Major General Qassem Soleimani.
The Canadian government says 55 Canadian citizens and 30 permanent residents were among the 176 people killed.
The families of the victims had also claimed that IRGC members would enter Canadian soil under the guise of the national team if the friendly game with the Iranian team was to take place.
“Like many other activities in Iran, including football [football] There it will be controlled by the IRGC, which is expected to send members to accompany the Iran team to the exhibition match in Canada,” Hamed Esmaeilion, the family association’s spokesman, claimed in a comment earlier this month.
Meanwhile, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and several other politicians had denounced the decision to host the Iranian team. Trudeau had last week said the game was “not a very good idea” and put the onus on Canada Soccer to make a final decision.
“And in relation to the ability of those players to come to Canada and the teams to come to Canada, the Border Patrol agencies make professional and independent decisions about eligibility for people to come to Canada,” he added.
Canada’s government on Thursday showed its approval of the decision to cancel the game, as Sports Minister Pascale St-Onge welcomed the move.
When asked by Al Jazeera, a sports ministry spokesman declined to comment on the political aspects of the case, saying Canada Soccer should comment as the organizer. Canada Soccer has not yet responded to a request for comment.
Iran is suing for $10 million
The cancellation of the game is likely to have more long-term consequences, as financial aspects also had to be taken into account.
Sina Kalhor, a deputy sports minister of Iran, announced in a tweet on Thursday that the Iranian Football Federation will sue its Canadian counterpart for $10 million over the decision to unilaterally cancel the game due to a breach of contract.
“Canada Soccer’s unilateral cancellation of the match between Iran and Canada has shown once again that the slogan of not politicizing football is just a cover for the interests of Western countries,” he wrote.
Earlier this week, Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh had said the ministry expects Canada not to politicize the game, adding that the Canadian government and the Football Association of Canada are responsible for any breaches of contract.
Pressure on Canada Soccer to cancel the game had also mounted after reports surfaced earlier this week that the organization would be paying the Iranian Football Federation $400,000 as part of a standard practice to cover additional expenses such as travel expenses.
Canada Soccer has not publicly discussed the details of its deal with the Iranian counterpart, citing a confidentiality clause, but its president, Nick Bontis, has told Canadian media that “no appearance money has been paid to Iran”.
“This behavior by Canada Soccer is appalling,” Canada’s High Commissioner for the United Kingdom, Ralph Goodale, a former special adviser to Trudeau on the PS725, tweeted earlier this week. “It challenges both the competence and the values of the organization.”
Iran, Canada and the World Cup
The game against the Iran national team would have been a rare opportunity to test the Canadian side outside of their CONCACAF confederation, which covers the Americas and the Caribbean.
Since 2018, they have only played two games against sides outside CONCACAF.
The Canadian team, ranked 38th in the current FIFA World Football Rankings, secured a World Cup spot for the first time in 36 years, emerging as surprise winners from regional qualifiers ahead of Mexico and the United States.
Canada Soccer had said it chose Iran because the team had a style of play similar to Morocco, one of Canada’s opponents in the Qatar tournament.
Iran is currently ranked 21st in the men’s soccer world rankings, ahead of all other Asian teams. The 2022 tournament is his third consecutive World Cup appearance and sixth appearance overall.
Iran have secured a place in Group B of football’s top international competition after being paired with the USA and the UK, two of the country’s most bitter political opponents. They are joined by either Scotland, Wales or Ukraine.