By Payam Yunesipour
February 27, 2019
One of Iran’s senior football officials has lied about missing funds that had been awarded to the national football team for taking part in two World Cups, IranWire research has revealed.
Over a million dollars has disappeared from dues paid by FIFA, football’s international governing body, to the Iranian Football Federation, but one of the Iranian officials in charge of the funds has denied anything is amiss — a claim that cannot be verified.
As IranWire reported on February 6, the missing amount — part of what FIFA paid the Iranian team for advancing to and playing in two World Cups — totals US$1.306 million. Ali Soleimani, the Iranian Football Federation’s treasurer, has claimed [Persian link] that all funds the Iranian federation received from FIFA were used to pay for the expenses of the national team players and their training camps. These include Graz in Austria and FC Lokomotiv in Russia, grounds the national team used in the run-up to the 2018 FIFA World Cup. However, Soleimani also said something that fueled further questions: “Around 1.5 Swiss francs — about the same amount that was spent on the cost of the World Cup — was paid to FIFA or was deducted from our account for various [instances of] misconduct. We were hit with heavy fines for misconduct.”
But research carried out by IranWire cannot confirm Soleimani’s claims. In the course of the four years in question, FIFA fined Iran a sum of 193,000 francs at the team level and 40,000 francs against individuals.
FIFA awards eight million Swiss francs to each team that advances to the World Cup finals. In an interview, the Iranian Football Federation’s treasurer had claimed that from 2014 until the start of 2018, FIFA had deducted 1.5 million Swiss francs in fines against Iran.
After the treasurer’s lies about FIFA fines were exposed, the federation’s public relations department issued a statement [Persian link] on February 9. In the statement, it referred to the revelations as “rumors,” and claimed that the fines had accumulated since 2012 and that, because Iran lacked credit with FIFA, the fines had been subtracted from Iran’s financial entitlement for the 2018 World Cup.
“Despite sanctions,” said the statement, “the football federation was able, through its endeavors, to receive two million francs in cash before the Asian Cup tournaments to prepare the national team. The remaining 1.5 [million] francs were used to pay for disciplinary fines, membership fees, fees for competitions, the costs of lottery ceremonies, plane tickets to attend training workshops, costs related to CAS [the Court of Arbitration for Sport] and other outlays.”
The statement was first posted on the federation’s site at 1.45pm on February 9, and it originally contained rather harsh language when referring to the allegations. However, a few minutes later, the statement was removed from the site and replaced with a completely revised version. Only one sentence remained intact: “Sadly, certain sources are in the habit of telling part of the truth and follow it with spreading lies and with publishing false news. Naturally, such practices do not change the reality.”
The new statement, however, does not specify exactly which parts of the report were untrue.
IranWire’s Question and FIFA’s Enigmatic Answer
We contacted FIFA to find out more. As a first step, we sent Fatma Samoura, the secretary general of FIFA, and FIFA’s Media Committee the complete text of Ali Soleimani’s interview alongside the link to the list of FIFA’s fines. Our main question was this: “Does the level of FIFA’s fines amount to anything other than what has been published on FIFA’s official website?” Our other question was whether FIFA was waiting to receive payment of the fines.
After 48 hours, IranWire received the following response from FIFA’s Media Committee: “As you know, how the World Cup award money is spent is up to the federation of each country and we play no part in how these decisions are made. With due respect, please ask these questions of Iran’s football federation.”
At first glance, FIFA’s response appears to be a kind of shrugging off of its responsibility — something IranWire reporters have witnessed before. FIFA had the same reaction to the issue of allowing female spectators into stadiums in Iran and its compromise with Mehdi Taj, the president of Iran’s football federation. In its response, FIFA does not mention any other fines of which IranWire and the public are not aware. So, through its silence, FIFA has actually confirmed that Iran received its financial award without any other deductions apart from those published by FIFA. How this money is spent, FIFA says, is not its business.
But perhaps the major reason for FIFA’s silence on the missing 1.5 million francs can be traced back to what happened on December 8, 2018. On that day, the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) revealed that Mehdi Taj had officially announced his candidacy for the vice presidency of the AFC and for membership to the FIFA Council. FIFA’s internal rules prohibit the endorsement or denunciation of a candidate for the FIFA Council prior to an election.
What Is the FIFA Council?
The FIFA Council is a non-executive, supervisory and strategic body that sets out FIFA’s vision for global football. The council was given more power after FIFA was hit with successive corruption scandals between 2010 and 2016.
The FIFA Council has 37 members: One president, elected by the FIFA Congress, the supreme legislative body of the International Federation of Association Football; eight vice presidents; and 28 other members elected by member associations such as the AFC. At the moment, the AFC has six vice presidents at the council. Sheikh Salman Bin Ibrahim Al-Khalifa, the president of the AFC, is from the royal family of Bahrain. The other five are Mahfuza Akhtar from Bangladesh, Mariano Araneta from the Philippines, Mong Gyu Chung from South Korea, Jian Zhang from China and Kohzo Tashima from Japan.
The next elections are scheduled for April 6, when it will be decided whether Mehdi Taj will sit on the council. FIFA could be aware of the Iranian federation’s questionable accounting regarding FIFA’s award money to the Iranian federation and how the money has been spent. It probably knows that some of Taj’s activities go against FIFA’s ethics, which were fundamentally revised and set out in 2018. Most likely, it is also well aware that the federation has consistently reneged on its promises regarding female spectators at stadiums.
But, by its own rules, FIFA is bound to refrain from commenting on candidates for FIFA elections. So all it could say was that Iran has received the full amount of the money it is owed and that IranWire must “ask them” how they spent it.
A Million-Franc Lie
Iran’s football federation’s response to IranWire’s report and the continuing reverberations it has caused was the usual one: “They are lying!”
The federation claims that its accumulated debt from 2012 to 2018 was a sum of around 1.5 million Swiss francs, which was paid out from FIFA’s payment of eight million francs to Iran for its advance to the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Iran also made it to the 2014 World Cup finals in Brazil and received an award of eight million francs for doing so. In his first press conference in Brazil, Carols Queiroz, the manager of Iran’s national football team, complained about banking sanctions on Iran and said: “We received FIFA’s award in drips and drops. But we are here for football and football is not warfare.” But he did tell reporters that he was happy that Iran had received the total amount of the award.
So how could it be possible that FIFA waited all these years to deduct fines imposed on Iran from 2012 to 2018 when Iran had received an eight-million-franc award in 2014?
The more important point, however, is the unaccounted additional income that Iran received from FIFA. According to the rules, all national teams that are members of FIFA and declare their readiness to compete for the next World Cup in the first FIFA Congress following a previous World Cup final receive an annual sum of 250,000 Swiss francs from FIFA. This means one million francs every four years. In other words, in addition to the eight-million-franc awards for competing at the World Cup finals, as of now Iran has received two million francs simply for participating in the World Cup qualifying games.
This payment of 250,000 francs goes to all teams, whether to Yemen, which was eliminated after two qualifying playoffs in the World Cup, or France, which won the championship in 2018.
Iran’s football federation claims that FIFA waited years to deduct fines from Iran’s entitlements. But over the last years, FIFA has never waited to punish Iranian football teams for any of their infractions. For example, FIFA deducted six points from Persepolis and Khuzestan’s Esteghlal football clubs. How is it possible that FIFA would pay Iran what it was due, as well its annual stipends, but refrain from collecting its $1.5 million fines?
Of course, Mehdi Taj was running this federation. He has now reached the compulsory retirement age and must relinquish his post as the head of the federation — but the irony remains that he claimed he was working for free and never received any salary or compensation for his hard and selfless work.