IRAN: Nation mourns death of Nasser Hejazi, soccer hero and regime opponent
"Hejazi mardomi [Hejazi of the people]," they cried out in Tehran's massive Azadi Stadium.
People wept as an ambulance carrying his body drove around the stadium as part of the tribute to one of the country's most beloved athletes. His wife stood next to the goal post as his son Atila walked to the pitch amid thousands of fans huddled together.
"My dad loved you all," he said. "He loved fans of Esteghlal and fans of Persepolis," he said, referring to Tehran's two main soccer clubs.
Hejazi was a goalkeeper for the Tehran-based Esteghlal (Independence) football team for almost two decades, but for many fans, he was not just a soccer player but a symbol of quiet defiance against the current regime.
Hejazi's body was to be laid to rest Wednesday in the vast public cemetery south of Tehran, Behesht e-Zahra, not far from the shrine of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, leader of the Islamic Revolution.
Hejazi was so beloved by fans that they rushed to the cemetery to attend the burial ceremony too. Many of them claimed that the the soccer player did not get the sendoff he deserved.
According to tradition, prayers over a dead body before burial are supposed to be held out in the open, but prayers over Hejazi's body were allegedly held in either the privacy of the hospital mortuary or in the cemetery, away from public view.
Reformist newspapers reported that Hassan Khomeini, the grandson of the late ayatollah and a major figure in the reform movement, was supposed to pray over the body, but it remains unclear who led the prayers.
In addition to being considered by many as the best Asian goalkeeper of all time, the late soccer player's legacy included a history of opposition to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Hejazi nominated himself for the 2005 presidential election that eventually brought Ahmadinejad to power, but the athlete was rejected by the Iranian Guardian Council, a powerful 12-member constitutional watchdog, on the grounds that he lacked sufficient experience in the political sphere.
The independent-minded athlete was an ardent supporter of the relatively moderate Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and the reformist Mir-Hossein Mousavi during the presidential elections.
In the week before his death, tabloids, magazines and sports dailies were covered with pictures of the well-dressed Hejazi in black and gray suits -– dress associated with the middle and upper middle class strata of Iranian society, known for their criticism of Ahmadinejad.
Last April, Hejazi criticized the economic reform plan of the Iranian president.
"When I observe the dire condition of people, my health deteriorates," he told football news website Goal.com.
"I am agonized when I see [authorities] interpret poverty as contentedness, inefficiency as patience, and with smile on their faces, they call this very stupidity as wisdom," he said.
But in a soccer-crazed country such as Iran, even authorities with zero tolerance for the opposition needed to react to Hejazi's death.
According to Iran's English-language television network, Press TV, Ahmadinejad expressed his grief over the superstar's death on Tuesday, characterizing him as a "renowned and good-tempered Iranian football figure who offered valuable services to national Iranian sport.”
Even the Islamic Republic News Agency, a mouthpiece of the regime that Hejazi openly opposed, covered the services for the soccer star.
According to political analyst Reza Kaviani, Hejazi was able to influence the masses because soccer is a greatly loved grass-roots sport that appeals to the common Iranian.
"People generally do not communicate with scientists and intellectuals, but listen to their idols, and Nasser is another side of the same coin of the populist president Ahmadinejad," Kaviani said in an interview with Bablyon & Beyond.
Photo: Fans mourn the death of Nasser Hejazi. Credit: Islamic Republic News Agency