Canada Soccer, riding a wave of goodwill since John Herdman’s side qualified for the World Cup in style, now finds itself embroiled in controversy over a scheduled friendly with Iran next month. next in Vancouver.
The question is whether Canada should host Iran given the Canadians who died on Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 when it was shot down on January 8, 2020, minutes after taking off from Tehran, by a Iranian surface-to-air missile. The Canadian government says 55 Canadian citizens and 30 permanent residents were among the 176 people killed.
Hamed Esmaeilion, spokesman for the Association of Families of Flight PS752 Victims, said his group had been against the game since the first rumour. But the issue took center stage on Tuesday when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was asked about it by a reporter, who said families who had lost loved ones saw the game as a “slap in the face.”
“It was a Soccer Canada choice,” Trudeau said in St. John’s. “I think it was not a very good idea to invite the Iranian football team here to Canada. But that’s something the organizers are going to have to explain.”
In a statement, the Association of Families of Victims of Flight PS752 asked Canada Soccer “to cancel the match immediately”.
“They call it a friendly match,” Esmaeilion, whose wife Parisa and young daughter Reera were among those who died on Flight 752, said in an interview. “What kind of friendship do we have with the Islamic Republic of Iran?
“We want the (Canadian) government to take them to an international court. And instead, we’re humiliated by them… I feel like I’ve been stabbed in the back — (as well as) the other family members. After 28 months, we see no signs of seeking justice here. We see no sign of bringing Iran to an international forum. And instead they invite the (Iranian) football team here.
Canada Soccer released a brief statement following Trudeau’s comment.
“At Canada Soccer, we believe in the power of sport and its ability to bring together people from different backgrounds and political persuasions for a common purpose,” he said. “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 preparing our men’s national team to compete on the world stage.”
Asked about the Prime Minister’s comment, Canada international Lucas Cavallini said: “That’s his opinion.”
“But for us guys, for soccer players, we want soccer to grow here in Canada. And games like these are important for our nation, to bring people closer to soccer,” added the Vancouver Whitecaps forward.
In its statement, the Association of Families of Victims of Flight PS752 said it “recognizes the right of athletes to face various adversaries and supports the sport and what the World Cup stands for”.
“However, it is offensive to the loved ones of the victims of Flight PS752 given the incredible loss they suffered at the hands of the IRGC and their continued efforts to seek justice for the victims.”
“I understand that this announcement causes pain for the families and loved ones of the victims,” said Federal Sports Minister Pascale St-Onge in an interview. “Although Canada Soccer, an independent organization, is responsible for preparing the team for the competition, they should have thought about it before going ahead. Sport Canada had no part in this decision.”
Esmaeilion, who noted that the federal government is responsible for issuing visas, called it “sportswashing.”
Canada Soccer and the federal government had not responded to families who complained about the game, he said.
“It’s a way to normalize relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran… And it’s not the first time it’s been used by dictators. Russia has used it in the past and Iran is following,” he said from Richmond Hill, Ont.
He also said that the Iranian team will be accompanied abroad by intelligence and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) officers.
“And now we welcome the officers from the IRGC, IRGC – the same entity that shot down PS752. And we’re issuing visas to them. It’s a danger to the national security of this country.”
Esmaeilion also noted that Iran does not allow women to attend football matches. “It goes against Canadian values,” he said.
The federal government said Canada’s priority “is to seek answers and achieve justice by holding Iran accountable and seeking reparations, while continuing to provide the families and loved ones of the victims with the support they have need”.
Canada will host Iran on June 5 in Vancouver in a two-game home game at BC Place Stadium. The Canadian men will open the CONCACAF Nations League A game there against Curaçao on June 9 before closing the FIFA international window with another CONCACAF Nations League game against Honduras in San Pedro Sula on June 13.
Canada, ranked 38th in the world, and Iran, number 21, are both preparing for the FIFA World Cup in Qatar in November.
The Vancouver games are Canada’s first at home since qualifying for the World Cup in a 4-0 win over Jamaica at BMO Field in Toronto on March 27. It is also the Canadian men’s first visit to BC Place since March 2019 when they beat French Guiana 4-1 in the CONCACAF Nations League qualifier.
The Canadians dominated the final round of CONCACAF qualifying with an 8-2-4 record. Their last game was a 1-0 defeat at Panama on March 30.
Canada is 1-2-0 all-time against Iran, winning the most recent meeting 1-0 in April 2001 in Cairo. Iran won 1-0 in 1997 and 1999 matches in Toronto and Edmonton, respectively.
The game against Iran is one of the few World Cup warm-ups for John Herdman’s side ahead of Qatar. Herdman said he would be looking to take the team to Europe in the fall to play several more matches in preparation for Qatar.
Canada will open the World Cup game on November 23 against second-placed Belgium before facing No. 16 Croatia on November 27 and Morocco (24th) on December 1.
With files from Gemma Karstens-Smith in Vancouver and Lori Ewing in Toronto
Follow @NeilMDavidson on Twitter
This report from The Canadian Press was first published on May 17, 2022.