29.12.2021 17:37 h

Iran federation defends footballer in row over 'Israel flag' jersey

Iran's football federation threw its weight behind former national team captain Mehdi Mahdavikia Wednesday after he faced criticism for wearing a jersey bearing an Israeli flag during a friendly game.

"He is one of the greats of Iranian football" and "a symbol of pride for the Islamic Republic of Iran", secretary-general Hassan Kamranifar said in a statement on the federation's website.

Ultraconservative lawmakers had lambasted the veteran player after he wore a jersey featuring the flags of all FIFA member countries, including Israel, during a friendly match in Qatar on December 17.

Iran does not recognise arch-rival Israel as a state and prohibits contact between athletes from the two countries.

Mahdavikia "must apologise to the Iranian people for his act and must stand trial because he has betrayed the Iranian nation", MP Bijan Nobaveh-Vatan said, according to the ultraconservative Fars news agency.

Kamranifar said Mahdavikia had handled the situation with "vigilance".

The federation had spoken with him and examined the case "despite prejudice and sometimes unfair attacks", Kamranifar added.

Mahdavikia, 44, was named coach of Iran's U23 team in July.

He played 111 matches for the national team, and is particularly celebrated for having scored a goal in Iran's famous 2-1 victory over the United States in the 1998 World Cup.

The 2003 Asian Player of the Year served as captain of the national team from 2006 to 2009 and spent much of his career playing for European teams, most notably Hamburg SV.