Iran’s king of soccer is focused on a bigger goal

By George Fochive, Special to The Sporting Tribune

In every corner of the world, Cristiano Ronaldo is recognized as arguably the greatest soccer player to ever step on the pitch. And with the FIFA World Cup set to begin this week, Ronaldo’s stellar career will be discussed at length across the globe in what will likely be his last time representing Portugal in soccer’s quadrennial international showcase.

Among the many accolades and accomplishments Ronaldo has garnered in his illustrious career, one stands out among the rest: the all-time scoring record in men’s international football competition, a distinction that was held for nearly 13 years by former Iranian captain and legend, Ali Daei.

“This [record] is very special to me…because Ali Daei has set the standards in such a high level, that at some point, even I started thinking that I might never catch him,” Ronaldo wrote in a September 2021 post to his more than 400 million Instagram followers. “Congratulations to the ‘Shahriar’ for holding the record for so long and thanks for always showing so much respect for me… as I became closer to his outstanding number.”

The global soccer community anticipated a once-in-a-lifetime meeting of these two titans when their respective national teams both qualified for the World Cup earlier this year. The opportunity to witness an historic passing-of-the-torch moment from one giant to another wouldn’t have just been a great public relations spectacle for a World Cup that has marked by controversy since naming Qatar as its host; it would have been a moment of personal pride for both world-class players and their countries. 

Perhaps Daei felt much the same way last April when he was invited to the World Cup draw ceremony in Qatar, when he walked across the stage and beamed with immense pride while again representing Iranian soccer on the world stage.  

Months later, however, a different and higher stakes type of battle of perseverance has begun to unfold in Iran, one Daei felt was more important than the World Cup; more important than soccer itself.

In September, Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian girl, died in custody of the so-called “morality police” of Iran after she committed the “crime” of improperly wearing her headscarf. Her death sparked protests throughout the country, and her name became a worldwide hashtag. From the very beginning, one of the first and most prominent voices of support for the protesters was Daei’s.  

Consequently, on November 14, Daei declined FIFA’s invitation to participate in the World Cup, and two other Iranian soccer legends, Ali Karimi and Javad Nekounam, joined him in that decision.  

Daei explained that he would forgo the World Cup in solidarity with the protesters in Iran who are fighting for women’s rights, human rights, and democracy; and in honor of those families who lost loved ones in the protests as a result of the brutal crackdown of the Iranian government. 

“I have always stayed outside of politics but will always stand with the people of my country,” he told GQ Middle East in an October 2021 interview. And the first chance he got to prove he is a man of his word, Daei is just doing just that.

“Instead of suppression, violence, arrests and accusing the people of Iran of being rioters, solve their problems,” he wrote on his Instagram account. He also posted a video of a girl dancing and taking off her headscarf, or “hijab,” an act that became the symbol of the protests against the Islamic Republic. Daei’s posts not only surprised his more than 10 million Instagram followers, but it also jolted Iranians across the world as it broke the past norms of not speaking out against the regime and Supreme Leader. 

Daei has done more than just speak out in support of the protesters. He has become their unofficial guardian. He recently paid a visit to the hospital where a political prisoner Hossein Ronaghi was taken, a daring and courageous act in today’s Iran. Despite social media being banned in Iran, his messages of support for the protesters and his looming presence as a folk-hero has provided the Iranian people with something that past movements didn’t have; a legendary figure who opposes the injustices and cruelty of his government. 

In one interview during the prime of his career, Daei stated: “I would like people not to like me because I play soccer, I want them to like me because of who I am and how I act. If standing with the people is a crime, I will accept this crime for the rest of my life.” 

This is not the first time the world has seen a famous athlete take a stand against injustice or speak for those without voices.

Muhammad Ali opposed war; Billy Jean King demanded equal pay for women; Colin Kaepernick protested police brutality. Each of them have faced immeasurable risks. But none have stood up to a political regime as lawless and as cruel as the one that now brutalizes the people of Iran daily, the one that Daei dares to challenge. The soccer legend is risking his life everyday by standing with his people in their quest for truth and justice and fundamental rights, the things we take for granted in the United States.  

When Ronaldo broke Daei’s scoring record, Ronaldo addressed him as “Shahriar,” which is a Persian name meaning “King.” But Daei is much more than the one-time scoring king of soccer. He personifies what the ancient Persians believed was the duty of the Shahriar: to fight the evil forces that threaten the welfare of the people.

When the World Cup begins, I will be in Portland watching it on my television, as will millions of other people around the world. But as we cheer on our favorite teams and celebrate their epic goals and monumental saves, I urge the soccer world to remember Daei and his courageous efforts to reform Iran. His place may be empty in Qatar, but his impact is being felt by his presence among his more than 85 million countrymen and women in Iran.

My hope is that the roars of World Cup fans do not drown out the voices and hopes of the Iranian people.

George Fochive is a professional soccer player of Cameroonian descent who played last season in Major League Soccer with the Portland Timbers. Fochive grew up in France and played collegiately at Hawaii Pacific University and UCONN. The 30-year-old central defensive midfielder has played internationally and won the 2015 MLS Cup with the Timbers. Fochive is also an artist who works in acrylic on canvas and paints under the alias, Ivan Yaffe. Last month, he hosted his first art gala in Portland, donating a portion of the proceeds from the event to support financial aid initiatives at United PDX youth soccer club.

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