Iranian football star and former Bayern Munich midfielder Ali Karimi. (AFP)

By Payam Younesipour

February 25, 2021

Football star Ali Karimi has turned down an invitation from Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) appear in a debate for Iranian Football Federation presidential candidates.

Instead, the coach and veteran Persepolis player gave his time to the “TV Talk” program broadcast on the Filimo online network, and asked for 2.5 billion tomans to participate in this program. But he did not accept the check in his own name.

The producer of the program said that this amount, the equivalent of the price of a thousand tablets of vital medication was instead made out to the charity Servants of Imam Ali Ibn Abi Talib. The full amount donated by the station will go toward medicine for deprived children in Iran.

This is not the first time that Ali Karimi has rolled up his sleeves in support of humanitarian causes while staying out of the mainstream media spotlight. Moreover, he is not alone in doing so.

Ali Karimi is unlikely to win the Football Federation presidential election himself. The election is a three-horse race: one being led on one side by Mohammad Baqer Ghalibaf, a former commander of the Revolutionary Guards Air Force, ex-mayor of Tehran and current speaker of the Iranian parliament, on behalf of his permanent representative in sports, Commander Mostafa Ajorlou. The other two campaigns are spearheaded by members of the government, who are canvassing for Shahaboddin Azizi Khadem, and by the judiciary, which is trying to usher Kioumars Hashemi into the role.

Fully aware of the extent of electoral engineering going on, Ali Karimi has made little effort in his own campaign. Mostafa Ajrlou is a commander of the Revolutionary Guards and Kioumars Hashemi is an ex-president of the National Olympic Committee. With this in mind, and aware of these candidates’ powerful backers, he wrote a letter to the IRIB’s Channel 3 director of sports calling the organization’s televised debates “a show” and declining to attend.

Instead, the former star player sat down in front of the cameras of the online TV Talk program to announce his plans for the presidency of Iranian football, alongside Mehdi Mahdavikia, whom he had introduced as his would-be first vice president.

Immediately afterward, a rumor found its way into Iranian media that Ali Karimi had asked for 700 million tomans to participate in the digital program. This prompted TV Talk’s producer Abolfazl Akbari to snap back, responding that the figure was in fact 2.5 billion tomans – and on the footballer’s instruction, it had not gone to him but to charity.

Abolfazl Akbari said that the quantity in fact paid to Ali Karimi was “symbolic”. The actual fee, he said, would purchase 1,000 medication tablets for children in need via the charitable organization Servants of Imam Ali Ibn Abi Talib. Karimi, he said, had not wanted this donation to be made known. But he had felt compelled to provide transparent information about the amount paid and the institution receiving it because of the allegations that had been made.

The Secret Donor Behind Post-Flood Reconstruction in Sistan and Baluchistan

This is not the first time that Ali Karimi has supported charity work outside of the public eye. Back on May 15, 2020,  Mehr News Agency reported on the efforts of a group of wrestlers to build a school in Sistan and Baluchistan.

A local activist wrote on his personal Twitter account that Karimi was behind the project and the school would serve 60 youngsters in deprived villages of the province. In fact, Ali Karimi was not supposed to be a part of this effort. But after floods hit the province, he had learned that Rasoul Khadem, the former president of the Iranian Wrestling Federation, was collecting money to support the flooded zones and had joined the donation drive alongside other sportspeople and artists.

Rasoul Khadem had established the Servants of Imam Ali Ibn Abi Talib Charity Foundation in Tehran a decade ago. Until last year its activities had focused on cultural, artistic and religious issues. Its members are almost uniformly famous Iranian sports and cinema figures. Rasoul Khadem remains the director, but is now joined by figures such as Hassan Rahimi, the current champion of Iranian freestyle wrestling, Hadi Habibi, the head coach of the national wrestling team, former coaches Mehdi Barati and Amir Tavakolian, current team members Ezatullah Akbar and Abbas Tahan, Ehsan Lashkari, the former world wrestling champion and bronze medalist at the London 2012 Olympics, Sajjad Ganjzadeh, a world karate champion, and actors Kamil Ghasemi and Parviz Parastavi.

Initially the charity had intended to provide first aid to flood victims in Sistan and Baluchistan. Ali Karimi donated money to the charity’s account to provide this immediate assistance, and while the amount was never disclosed, IranWire was informed at the time that it may have reached up to 110 million tomans. On discovering the amount received was far more than what was needed for first aid, Rasoul Khadem had decided to spend it instead on reconstruction.

Sportspeople Step in to Provide Assistance Lacking from Government

Karimi had previously used some of his own wealth to support the victims of the Varzeghan earthquake, financing the medical treatment of several Afghan children working in different cities of Iran and providing dowries for homeless girls while he was playing for Germany’s Bayern Munich FC. player. The latter was revealed by Branko Ivankovic during his tenure as head coach of the Iranian national team.

In 2011, while Ali Karimi was playing for Persepolis, a photographer and reporter at Iran newspaper noticed his regular presence in the village of Qeydar in Zanjan. He would fill his car with toys, medicine, food and clothing, they said, and drop it off there. On one of his trips to the village, when he noticed the newspaper photographer loitering nearby, Karimi took his camera and asked the photographer to help him distribute the items instead of taking pictures .

He has now donated 1,000 tablets to a charity that was once supposed to be a religious and cultural body, but changed its nature over time.

For his part, Rasoul Khadem had founded the charity after vowing that if he won the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, he would establish an institution or body that would be active in cultural affairs, or more properly, in religious matters; a little late, but he finally did it. The same institution has now become one of the most effective charities in Iran, naturally without any regular help from government agencies.

Rasoul Khadem has since written letters to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Supreme National Security Council calling for the repeal of the Anti-Israeli Athletes Act, to which Ali Khamenei replied in the negative. Ever since then, high-ranking IRGC commanders have publicly threatened him. He resigned from the presidency of the Wrestling Federation, bade farewell to politicized sport in Iran and went to the villages to enact real change. It seems this football star now intends to follow in his footsteps.

Iran Wire

About Track Persia

Track PersiaTrack Persia is a Platform run by dedicated analysts who spend much of their time researching the Middle East, in due process we fall upon many indications of growing expansionary ambitions on the part of Iran in the MENA region and the wider Islamic world. These ambitions commonly increase tensions and undermine stability.