By Payam Younesipour
January 25, 2020
Choosing the new head coach for Iran’s national football team has become a political power struggle. As of now, the three choices on the table are Amir Ghalenoei, Ali Daei and the Italian Gianni De Biasi — at least when it comes to the preferences of the parliament, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and, of course, the Iranian Football Federation.
“Today, in Isfahan, a senior official of the federation met with Amir Ghalenoei, one of the choices for the management of the national team,” the sports newspaper Khabar Varzeshi’s Telegram channel reported on Wednesday, January 22. It did not mention the name of the “senior official of the federation,” but the report was referring to Mahmoud Eslamian, deputy president of the football federation and the godfather of both football in Isfahan and Sepahan FC. For more than a decade, he was the manager of Foolad Mobarakeh Sports Club and Sepahan FC, in addition to managing Zob Ahan FC.
Friendly relations between Amir Ghalenoei and Mahmoud Eslamian go back more than 10 years. Eslamian left Sepahan FC and joined the football federation but he continued to support Ghalenoei as manager of Sepahan. However, Ghalenoei’s hopes to become manager of the national football team are not solely dependent on Eslamian’s support and friendship. At various junctions in the past he has also had the support of members of the parliament, many of whom want him to do the job. For instance, in 2010, when the football federation was searching for a well-known foreign head coach, MPs were pressuring Ali Kafashian, president of the football federation at the time, to choose Amir Ghalenoei.
The second candidate is Ali Daei, the former football star and the world’s top goal scorer. Daei did only recently appear to have no place in Iranian football after he revealed secrets about a commander of the Guards’ Quds force in 2019.
On May 2, 2019, Ali Daei was sacked from his job as manager for Saipa FC after he spoke out against his players being badly paid. In a press conference afterward, he criticized Mostafa Modabber, the CEO of Saipa FC, and said: “I do not know a real person by the name of Mostafa Modabber. As far as my imperfect memory tells me, I knew him as Commander Ghafour when he was the head of security at IRIB [Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting]. It was interesting that he introduced himself as ‘Modabber’ on an episode of Navad [a popular sports program on Iranian TV]. When he spoke I found his tone of voice familiar and I saw that he was the same Commander Ghafour that I had known, the one from Ardabil. How did he become Mostafa Modabber? I wish somebody from the Registration Office was here so I could ask him whether people can change both their first and last names.”
Ali Daei was referring to Commander Ghafour Darjazi, who was allegedly involved in the 1989 assassination of Abdulrahman Ghasemlou, the Secretary General of the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (KDPI), which had demanded autonomy for Iranian Kurdistan. Perhaps Ali Daei did not know that Commander “Ghafour” is also a pseudonym. The CEO of Saipa FC’s real name is Amir Mansour Bozorgian-Asl — the name that appears on German court documents and testimonies relating to the so-called “Mykonos Assassinations.”
On September 17, 1992 four Iranian Kurdish leaders were killed by men with machine guns in the Mykonos restaurant in Berlin. This incident led to a trial that took nearly four years and implicated the Iranian leadership — the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who was the president at the time, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Foreign Minister Ali Velayati — as the masterminds of the crime. The principal witness at the trial was Abolghasem Mesbahi, a senior official at Iran’s intelligence ministry, who surrendered himself to German authorities in the 1990s.
Despite the revelations about someone connected to the scandal, Ali Daei’s estrangement from football did not last long. Although there were rumors that he had been banned from football, over the last six months he has received many offers to manage club teams. On October 12, 2019, the website Khabar Online reported that Ali Daei had rejected an offer by Shahin Bushehr FC, a football club based in the southern port city of Bushehr [Persian link]. According to its report, he told the directors of Shahin Bushehr FC that, for the moment, he had “no intention of coaching.” But two months later he was the top choice to manage Isfahan’s Zob Ahan FC.
Buy why didn’t he accept the offer to go to Isfahan? Daei claimed he rejected the offer due to “personal” considerations, but Zob Ahan officials said that they had been contacted “from Tehran” and had been told to rescind the offer because Daei was being considered as a manager for the national football team.
However, Daei has never been a coach outside of Tehran. Even when he was appointed as the manager of Sabaye Qom FC, he held his team’s exercises in Tehran, even though Qom is not very far from the Iranian capital. The reason is simple. He is more a businessman than a football coach — from Daei Sportswear and Equipment to managing chain stores, including imports and exports. In recent years, he has also used his connections to make money by releasing imported goods from customs and arranging business deals with football clubs in Tehran.
Many believe that Ali Daei is close to the regime and some say that he has close relations with the Revolutionary Guards. On Monday, January 20, the sports paper Goal reported that Daei had held a meeting with the football federation. In a video published on Goal’s Telegram channel, Daei claimed that he was there only to complain about Saipa FC to the Appeals Committee of the federation [Persian link], but he was accompanied by his lawyer Bahman Dehghan, a man who has supervised all Daei’s contracts.
On the same day, Daei told reporters that no negotiations had taken place between him and the national football federation. Perhaps he is telling the truth — but only because the preliminary negotiations had already been started by an authority higher than the sports ministry and the national football federation.
Despite Daei’s denials, on the night of Monday, January 20, Heydar Baharvand, the interim president of the football federation, told a TV sports program that the “national football team’s choices [for the head coach] are Ali Daei, Amir Ghalenoei and a foreign coach.”
Gianni De Biasi
The third candidate is Italian. During the afternoon of Wednesday, January 22, the famous Italian journalist Gianluca Di Marzio reported that Gianni De Biasi was on the verge of signing a contract with Iran’s national football team. Di Marzio has a record of uncovering secret negotiations between coaches and players with various sports clubs and federations.
Gianni De Biasi had also been a candidate for manager of Tehran’s Esteghlal FC. When Andrea Stramaccioni resigned from the job, the directors of the club started searching for another Italian coach and came up with De Biasi, but the ministry of sports opposed this choice because, for the moment, state-owned clubs must follow a new ground rule: No contracts with foreign coaches until further notice.
De Biasi lacks a stellar record. His management of Modena, SPAL, Carpi, Deportivo Alavés, Udinese Calcio, Torino and Brescia football clubs, as well as the Albanian national football team, show that he is not at the level of Carlos Queiroz or even Marc Wilmots, former managers of Iran’s national team. Also, coaches such as Andrea Stramaccioni, who successfully managed Inter Milan and Sparta Prague football clubs, Branko Ivanković who won many championships in Iran, Croatia and China, and Winfried Schäfer, with his brilliant record in managing Cameroon’s national football team and the United Arab Emirates’ Al Ain FC are all of a higher standard than De Biasi.
For the moment, however, Gianni De Biasi is the only foreign candidate for the manager’s role. This appears to be the work of the football federation’s middlemen.
To understand how and why this happened, we must look at a bankrupt European firm called MagicfuteSports, a management consulting and football transfer agency based in Monaco that manages just two average Ukrainian footballers. Information available for the agency reveals it handles one assistant manager and four managers. Of these four managers only one, Pedro Miguel, actually manages a team. However, this bankrupt agency now appears to have been hired to make plans for Iran’s national football team.
These sorts of bizarre deals are nothing new. Some years ago former national team footballer Bamdad Mirzaei managed to impose a not very reputable French firm by the name of Evol Sports on the Iranian football federation [Persian link]. The company charged astronomical fees to hold training camps for the national team, arranged a friendly game between Iran and the national team of Sierra Leone, a team that was officially disbanded in 2016 because of extreme poverty and the spread of the Ebola virus, and made big profits through TV contracts and finding sponsors for the national team.
Neither Evol Sport nor MagicfuteSports could have established relations with the football federation without an Iranian middleman. However, it is even easier for these middlemen to command influence at the moment, since the Iranian federation does not currently even have a president.
The management of Gianni De Biasi’s contracts is handled by Artush Davidóvic, a Monaco citizen and the CEO of MagicfuteSports.
A Sensitive Juncture
Iran’s national football team must win all is remaining four games to qualify for the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Asian Cup, as well as the second round of qualifying games for the FIFA World Cup. But first it has to pick one of the three candidates as its manager: Amir Ghalenoei, supported by Mahmoud Eslamian and a number of members of parliament including the conservative Ehsan Ghazizadeh Hashemi, Ali Daei, who has always had the support of elements within regime and the Revolutionary Guards, or Gianni De Biasi, the choice of Iranian and foreign middlemen.
We will have to how this turns out, and what influence Iranian politics will have on Iranian football and its place on the international stage.