Canada Soccer says it is canceling a controversial exhibition game against Iran originally scheduled for next month in Vancouver, saying it has become “significantly divisive”.
“Over the past week, host nation Iran’s unsustainable geopolitical situation has become significantly divisive and the game has been canceled in response,” Canada Soccer said in a statement released Thursday night.
“While we considered the external factors in our initial decision-making process when choosing the optimal opponent, we will strive to be better in the future.”
The football body said it had “the best of intentions” to arrange the international match for June 5 as part of Team Canada’s preparations for the FIFA World Cup in Qatar later this year.
But the decision to include Iran drew contempt from the families of those who died on board flight PS752 when the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) shot down the plane in 2020.
All 176 passengers and crew aboard the plane were killed, including 85 Canadians and permanent residents.
The families said the exhibition game was an insult to those still seeking justice for their loved ones – especially amid ongoing concerns about IRGC’s potential ties to the Iranian team.
“We are happy,” said Hamed Esmaeilion, spokesman for the association representing victims’ families in Canada. “That’s the right thing … We were concerned that IRGC officers could come to Canada and normalize Canada’s relations with Iran.”
Canada Soccer said it would conduct a “holistic review” of its “processes for hosting international matches” and consult with stakeholders to move forward. The families of the victims said Canada Soccer never responded to their letters with questions about the game.
The football organization said it was looking for a new opponent for the game and was working to get refunds for those who bought tickets for the game, which was nearly sold out when it was cancelled.
Sina Kalhor, Iran’s deputy sports minister, tweeted late Thursday that he was seeking $10 million in damages from Canada Soccer, saying the organization broke its contract by canceling the game.
Canada Soccer has canceled the international match against Iran scheduled for 5 June 2022 as part of the men’s national team’s preparations for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™. All ticket buyers will receive further details. pic.twitter.com/7GhKT5toa7
CBC News reported Tuesday that the head of the Iranian team said that Canada Soccer would pay the Iranian soccer federation $400,000 for the game.
The team’s director, Hamid Estili, told pro-state media that the payment is the first time the Football Federation of Iran has made a profit from a friendly match in more than two decades.
Canada Soccer has neither confirmed nor denied that stated amount, but said it was customary to pay appearance fees to visiting teams to cover costs.
Canada Soccer received more than $3 million in federal funding this fiscal year. The government says none of that money went to the game.
Sport Minister Pascale St-Onge said in a statement to CBC News that the government “commends Canada Soccer for this decision” and looks forward to cheering for Team Canada during the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
Ukraine’s ambassador-designate to Canada, Yulia Kovaliv, is now urging Canada Soccer to play a friendly match with the Ukrainian soccer team instead.
“And 400,000 could be used for the humanitarian needs of Ukrainians affected by the Russian war,” Kovaliv wrote. “I think it’s a win-win situation.”
The football organization was under increasing political pressure to cancel the nearly sold-out game at BC Place.
Ralph Goodale, Canada’s High Commissioner to Britain and Canada’s former special adviser on Flight PS752, tweeted on Wednesday that Canada Soccer’s behavior was “disgusting” and “calls into question both the competence and values of the organisation”.
The Ukrainian football team is ready with @CanadaSoccerEN to play. 🇺🇦 ranked higher – 24th in @FIFAcom-Rating. And 400,000 could be used for the humanitarian needs of Ukrainians affected by the Russian war. I think it’s a win-win situation #StandWithUkraine pic.twitter.com/woD2iVydw6
Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart also condemned the game. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said again earlier this week that he thinks the game is “a bad idea” and distanced his government from the game and its funding.
CLOCK | Canada Soccer pays Iran’s side for the game:
Conservative MPs Matt Jeneroux and Richard Martel called Canada Soccer’s decision to invite and pay for the Iran team “unacceptable”.
“The inclusion of the Iran national football team as victims of flight PS752, who are still suffering and demanding compensation, is reprehensible and will only serve to further legitimize the Iranian regime,” the lawmakers wrote in a media statement.
The victims’ families also wrote letters to Public Safety Canada officials on Tuesday, raising concerns about their own safety. According to Canadian Security Intelligence, victims’ families have reported being harassed, threatened and intimidated by IRGC officials.
Experts say politics and sports are intertwined in Iran, with the IRGC either directly or indirectly controlling many sports organizations, including football clubs.
Estili did not respond to CBC’s request for comment, which was filed on Instagram last week.
Longtime sportswriter and CBC News contributor John Molinaro said Canada Soccer appeared to view the game as just a way for Team Canada to prepare for the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar and failed to consider the public relations implications.
Iran is ranked 21st in the FIFA Men’s World Ranking. Canada is ranked 38th.
Esmaeilion said he now wants the federal government to place the entire IRGC on its list of terrorist organizations, as the US has done. At the moment only a secret branch of the IRGC is listed as a terrorist organization in Canada.
CLOCK | The families of the victims want the game to be abandoned: