Iranian footballers issued with lifetime ban after playing against Israeli side

William West

Last year, the Iranian Olympian Alireza Khojasteh withdrew from the judo competition at the Rio Games, citing "personal reasons".

Two Iranian soccer players have been dropped from the national team as punishment for playing against an Israeli side for their Greek club, a senior Iranian sports ministry official told state TV on Thursday.

The foreign policy committee of Iranian parliament rebuked the players and said it was "disrespectful of the rights of thousands of martyrs and those displaced and affected by the occupying Zionist regime". The country has already qualified for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, but Shojaei and Haji Safi would've been invaluable as Iran looks to advance to the knockout stages of the tournament for the first time next summer in Russian Federation.

Haji Safi - an 84-cap veteran - was on the bench in the sealing victory over Uzbekistan in June, and he was expected to play when Iran travelled to Russian Federation next year.

Missing two key players a year before the World Cup tournament could undermine the team's chances of advancing in Russian Federation.

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For many years, Iranian athletes on the worldwide stage have hewed to an unwritten rule that they not play against Israelis, with many feigning illness or using other ruses to avoid head-to-head competitions.

The players, Masoud Shojaei, 33, the captain of the national team, and Ehsan Haji Safi, 27, one of Iran's most promising players, played for their Greek club team, Panionios, in a home game last week in Athens against Maccabi Tel Aviv from Israel.

Fans have taken to Twitter with the hashtag "football is not political" to defend the duo who are now set to miss out on the World Cup in Russian Federation next year. "They can be replaced, but that is not an ideal situation".

Shojaei was also ostracized in June when he asked Iran president Hassan Rouhani if women could enter the stadium to watch the team play.

"Shojaei's absence will have a negative impact on Iran's matches in the World Cup", said Reza Agharahimi, a 30-year-old soccer fan in Tehran.