The international friendly soccer match scheduled to take place between the Canadian and Iranian men’s national teams on June 5 at Vancouver Whitecaps FC's BC Place Stadium was canceled in the face of widespread opposition from the families of the Canadians killed in the downing of Ukrainian International Airlines Flight 752 by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The Canadian government has called the January 2020 shootdown of PS752, which killed 55 Canadian citizens and 30 permanent residents, a “national tragedy” and the decision to cancel the match should serve as a reminder that the Iranian regime has been unresponsive to the demands of the PS752 families.

The friendly match was set to take place between the two Qatar-bound countries in the run-up to the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Doha this November. But on May 26, Canada Soccer, the governing body for soccer in Canada, decided to cancel the match, issuing a statement that, “Canada Soccer has cancelled the international match that was scheduled for 5 June 2022 against Iran as part of the men's national team preparations for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022.”  

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had made his views on the issue clear, stating, “I've expressed my concern that I think this game was a bad idea. I can assure you that Sport Canada has not delivered any funding for this game,” he said. “And in terms of the ability of those players to come to Canada and the teams to come to Canada, the border services agencies make professional and independent decisions on eligibility for people to come to Canada.” 

In a letter released on May 19, Conservative MP Melissa Lantsman said the federal government was “making communities relive the grief and trauma” of the plane crash by inviting Iran to play in Vancouver. She subsequently expressed support for the May 26 decision to cancel the match, saying that it was “an overdue but welcomed decision on the path to justice for #ps752justice.”

At the forefront of the opposition was Hamed Esmaeelion, a Canada-based writer and the chief spokesperson for the Association of Families of Flight PS752 Victims, whose wife and 10-year-old daughter Reera were killed when their plane was shot down by the IRGC shortly after it took off from Tehran airport. In an op-ed in The Globe and Mail newspaper, he wrote that, “The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a ruthless and destructive military organization, shot down their passenger plane. The incident left them and 174 other passengers dead, many of whom were Canadian.”

Esmaeelion is one of the founders of PS752 Justice, an association that is committed to “unite the grieving families, keep the memories of the passengers alive, and most importantly seek justice.” The organization ultimately aims “to uncover the truth and find out why a commercial flight was shot down by IRGC’s missiles” and says it will “staunchly seek justice until the culprits, perpetrators, and commanders of this atrocious crime are identified and brought to justice.”

In a letter written to MP Matt Jeneroux, the families of the victims explained that the match was “yet another slap in the face of so many of us,” as "according to numerous indications, the Iranian team was about to be accompanied by members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) — the same group responsible for the downing of Flight PS752 and the brutal death of 85 Canadian citizens and permanent residents.”

The latter point underscores the issue of the IRGC’s political influence within the Iranian Football Federation, which despite the appearance of being independent, is very much subject to the powers that be in Iran. The majority of the soccer clubs and regional teams in the country are managed by individuals with ties to the IRGC, either past or present. These private sports clubs and leagues thus become yet another means of control for the Islamic regime and a way for it to enact its oppressive political and social policies.

Soccer in Iran has always been a political issue. Iranian women are banned from attending sporting events or even going to stadiums; when they try, they are usually confronted by pepper spray and assault — that is, if they are lucky enough to avoid arrest. While this ban is not written into law, the authorities have enforced it for decades. Thus, the topic of boycotting sports is an ongoing conversation in Iran. In this vein the May 26 decision by Canada Soccer was widely supported by Iranians, who understood the political undertones of the match as well as the grief among relatives of the victims of PS752. Supporters of the regime opposed the move, however, with Deputy Sports Minister Sina Kalhor threatening to sue Canada Soccer for $10 million for breach of contract.

As the pressure campaign in Canada and the subsequent decision to cancel the match made clear, the regime has failed to meet the demands of the PS752 families. After the plane was shot down, it took the government three days to explain what had happened, and then it attributed the incident to “human error” — a claim that the families of the victims have contested. In the nearly two and a half years since, the regime has not allowed an independent and transparent investigation, standing firm in its claim that human error was the cause.

In February of this year, the families of the victims told the Iranian government that instead of compensation they simply want “justice” and they urged the authorities to end their “psychological pressure on the bereaved families” following the destruction of the airliner. The cancellation of the soccer match in Canada is a part of a series of direct actions by PS752 families to bring attention to the shootdown of the plane, an illegal attack on civilians about which there are still many unanswered questions. As long as the Iranian government continues to stonewall, the families of the victims will continue to try to exert pressure wherever they can — in Iran, Canada, and around the world.

 

Hasti Aryana Rostami is an undergraduate student at the University of Texas at Austin, where she conducts research on political and social developments in the Middle East and North Africa with a specific focus on Iran, Turkey, and Kurdistan. She is also a digital publications intern at the Middle East Institute (MEI).

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