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ISRAEL: A New Year's greeting of sorts from Iran leads to resignation

January 3, 2010 |  8:33 am

Iran football

When Amir Navon, the attorney of the Israeli football association, received an e-mail last week with best wishes for the new year from Iran, he wondered whether that was a mistake. I don't know, said Gil Levanoni, the association's spokesman, but let's answer. "We thanked them for the greeting and wished a happy new year to all the good people in Iran," said Levanoni. They wished them a good year in soccer -- and threw in a wink for good measure.

The pleasant surprise indeed turned out to be a mistake; Iran's football federation sent greetings to a mail group of FIFA members around the world last week, only one went a bit too far and scored a self-goal for Mohammad-Mansour Azimzadeh, an official in the Iranian federation, who submitted his resignation, the Iranian news website Press TV reported today.

"The Zionist regime" was not supposed to be on the list and the president of the Iranian Football Federation, Ali Kafashian, expressed deep remorse for the incident.

Israeli news media said the mail was sent on behalf of Mohammed Ardebili, a senior federation official. A pair of enterprising reporters from Israel's Army Radio station got hold of Ardebili in Tehran on the phone last week, and broadcast the interview with him.

The interview started off as quite a nice guy chat about soccer. Iranians are crazy about soccer, said Ardebili. He handled things well when the conversation inched toward politics and touched on the demonstrations in Iran. It's just tension between parties, and things are smoother than the news reports, he said, pointing out that Iran was better off than some others, like a few Arab countries. At least we have elections and demonstrations, he said. And he continued to handle things well when the interview combined politics and sports, and explained that even though his team played against the U.S., it wouldn't play against Israel -- a different situation entirely. There is no communication between Iran and Israel, Ardebili said.

"And what if I told you now I was talking from Israel, from Tel Aviv?"

"No, no. You are talking from Israel? If I heard you were talking from Israel, I cannot communicate with you. That's a mistake. Thank you, thank you."

Listen to the interview here, in English and bits of Hebrew translation in between.

Politics often undermine pure sportsmanship, but sometimes the good wishes are genuine.

A few weeks ago, Yuval Ofer, an Israeli running enthusiast of many years, took a spontaneous initiative. He picked up the phone and dialed Lebanon. Introducing himself as Israeli, he invited the organizers of the Beirut marathon to send Lebanese runners to participate in the Tiberias marathon being held in Israel this week, "to compete and build a bridge of peace between neighbors." Ofer, who works with the marathon organizers, followed up his call with an e-mail.

A week went by in silence. Then, a contact replied, "Thank you for your kind e-mail and open-mindedness to Lebanon. ... Unfortunately, the authorities will not allow us to send anyone or be in communication with you." 

The writer wished him luck.

Ofer, for his part, expressed the hope that they would one day exchange runners, not rockets. Even if his initiative had been successful, he admits, chances are that arranging visas for Lebanese runners would have been a tremendous challenge. This proves difficult even with runners from Jordan, who signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1994. As for good neighborly sportsmanship with Lebanon, Ofer remains hopeful. One day, he says. In the meanwhile, he settles for seeds of engagement.

Mushir Salem Jawher knows all about these problems. Two years, the Kenyan runner won the Tiberias marathon. He entered Israel on his Kenyan passport, but he was also a citizen of Bahrain. Bahraini athletic union authorities expressed shock and regret, and the runner was swiftly stripped of his citizenship for competing in Israel. Now, he's back running under the Kenyan flag.

-- Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem

Photo: Mohammad-Mansour Azimzadeh, the Iranian official who resigned. Credit: Press TV website

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