Iran footballers break Israel sporting 'taboo'
Two Iranian footballers have been both praised and condemned in their home country after turning out for their Greek club side against Israel's Maccabi Tel Aviv.
While the Europa League third qualifying round match between Panionios of Athens and Maccabi will probably not last long in the memories of either set of fans, the appearance on the pitch of Iranians Masoud Shojaei and Ehsan Hajsafi in the Greek capital has not gone unnoticed back home.
The Islamic Republic does not recognise the state of Israel, and forbids Iranian athletes from competing against Israeli athletes at international sports events.
Last year, athlete Alireza Khojasteh withdrew from the judo competition at the Rio Olympics citing "personal reasons", but it is widely thought that his decision was based on the possibility of facing an Israeli opponent.
Some social media users praised the footballers, who both wore green, white and red wristbands representing the Iranian flag, for disregarding the ban.
"Why have talented athletes been wasted by this taboo? Breaking this taboo is a big development. Let's be with them whatever the cost may be," one user tweeted.
"The 'concerned ones' [Iranian hardliners] will now start insulting them, saying that Islam has been put in danger," said another Twitter user, posting a video showing the two players walking out on the field with their teammates.
'Fistful of dirty dollars'
But they appear to be in the minority, with many saying that the footballers should have skipped the match. Neither player was in the squad which travelled to Tel Aviv for last week's first leg.
Posting on its official Telegram channel, hardline Iranian news agency Raja News blasted Shojaei and Hajsafi for ignoring their "national and moral responsibility under the pretext of professional obligations"; while another Twitter user was more to the point: "Shame on you Ehsan and Masoud, for recognising those vampires for a fistful of dirty dollars."
The pair now face a possible ban from playing for Iran's national team, with a Sports Ministry official expressing his disapproval, saying that they will be "dealt with according to the rules".
Future participation in the Europa League won't be an issue for the pair this season. Panionios lost the match 0-1, with Maccabi Tel Aviv advancing to the play-off round 2-0 on aggregate.
Hajsafi was shown a yellow card in the first half; while Shojaei reportedly burst into tears at the end of the game, with the Varzesh website unable to tell if they were tears of disappointment at losing, or from being under pressure over the boycott issue.
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