Mehdi Taj, former head of Iran’s football federation, signed a shady contract with Mark Wilmots at the Iranian embassy in Brussels. (ISNA)

By Payam Younesipour

August 19, 2020

The Iranian football federation will pay €8.3 million to Marc Wilmots, the former manager of Iran’s national team, drawing a conclusion to one of Iranian football’s most baffling controversies and revealing the extent to which the country’s corrupt elite impacts on every aspect of Iranian life.

On August 17, the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) reported the international football federation’s (FIFA) decision, though its report stated FIFA had ordered Iran to pay €6.2, two million euros less than the true figure. A few minutes later, other outlets reported the same story, including the newspaper Gol, the website Tarafdari and the Iranian Students’ News Agency (ISNA), which took the trouble of pointing out that the Iranian federation had yet to confirm the news.

The Iranian Football Federation denied the report published by IRIB a few minutes after it was published. “To set the public straight on the rumors about FIFA’s ruling in the case of the former head coach of the national football team, we announce that this federation has received no notice from the international football federation,” football officials stated.

The truth amount surfaced a day later: Marc Wilmots would actually be receiving a further two million euros.

It appeared that Iran’s Football Federation had intentionally increased the sum owed to Marc Wilmots. He will receive €8.3 million for managing the national football team for six months, for spending less than 40 days in Iran, for two defeats against Bahrain and Iraq and for increasing the chances that Iran would be eliminated from competing in the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar.

Why Such Discrepancies in What Wilmots Would be Paid?

IranWire has learned that, in their earlier correspondence with FIFA, the management of the football federation failed to inform the international federation that Marc Wilmots had already been paid two billion euros. The Iranian Football Federation covered up the fact that it has so far paid Wilmots anything.

The contract with Marc Wilmots, the former Belgian footballer, has been one of the most controversial and curious in the history of Iranian sports. It came about at the request of Sports Minister Masoud Soltanifar in cooperation with the Iran-Netherlands Cultural Center, and had the support of the Tehran Petrochemical Company. It was reviewed by advisors to Mehdi Taj, head of the football federation at the time, and was finalized when Mehdi Taj signed it. Money to honor the contract came from the pockets of the retirees who had invested in Iran’s Social Security Investment Company (SSIC), whether they wanted to pay for it or not.

In November 2019, when Iran witnessed nationwide protests following a 300 percent increase in gas prices, Akbar Torkan, the CEO of Iran’s Social Security Investment Company (SSIC), a former minister of defense and a business partner of Mehdi Taj, agreed to pay the Belgian manager of Iran’s national team using funds belonging to Iranian retirees in exchange for a €2 million check from the federation. This deposit was made without the permission or the knowledge of SSIC’s shareholders.

After Mehdi Taj resigned from the football federation in December 2019, Akbar Torkan took the necessary steps to seize the federation’s assets. It is likely that an apartment in the upper-class Jordan neighborhood of Tehran and an automobile were among the assets that SSIC and Akbar Torkan could confiscate. In 2017, Mehdi Taj ordered the federation to put the apartment and the car at the disposal of Mohammad Reza Saket, a former general secretary of the football federation.

In the 1980s, Mohammad Reza Saket was Akbar Torkan’s driver in Isfahan, the first rung on the ladder of success that would years later find him in the role of  CEO of Sepahan FC and the general secretary of the federation under Mehdi Taj. Although he was kicked out of the federation by the order of the Iran’s General Inspection Office more than a year ago, but he has yet to vacate the apartment and return the car.

On June 2, the court allowed SSIC to seize the assets of Iran’s football federation. The court’s verdict relied on the fact that the federation had borrowed €2 million from SSIC to pay Marc Wilmots for his first year as the manager of Iran’s National Football Team. The sum was directly deposited from SSIC’s bank account into Wilmots’ account with Turkey’s Agricultural Bank so that he would agree to act as the head coach of the team in the Iran-Iraq game and then travel with the team to Jordan.

The Corrupt Deals that Meant the Head Coach was Paid — Even if he Quit

When Marc Wilmots was brought in, the football federation claimed he was coming to Iran for less than a million dollars a year, but, following revelations from Ehsan Ghazizadeh Hashemi, a member of parliament and a persistent critic of the federation, it was exposed that the amount was actually over €2.2 million per year.

So a head coach that, according to the football website Transfer Market was worth between $600,000 and $800,000, landed a contract of €2.25 per year to manage Iran’s National Football Team. As the head coach of Ivory Coast’s National Football Team before coming to Iran, he was paid a total of $130,000 for six months in monthly payments.

These revelations opened the way for supervisory authorities to look into the activities of the Iranian Football Federation under Mehdi Taj’s leadership. In the past he had been accused of serious financial corruption, including suspect contracts for outdoor football banners and promotions, tampering with money from ticket sales and the disappearance of more than €10 million of funds FIFA had sent Iran. This time, however, the Iranian judiciary decided to focus on the bizarre contract given to Marc Wilmots where, once again, Mehdi Taj’s fingerprints could be seen again, this time in the form of his son Ali.

But if the situation wasn’t already suspect enough, due to errors in the contract — intentional or not — Marc Wilmots was able to resign from his post after only six months in Iran, and demand full pay for the duration of the full contract. Despite the unusual terms of the contract, after it was signed, Mehdi Taj went on television to boast that the appointment was “historical” and a “turning point” in the history of Iranian sports.

When the Wilmots’ complaint against Iran was submitted to FIFA, Mehdi Taj, who was no longer the head of the football federation, decided to appoint Swiss lawyer Ludovic Deléchat to represent Iran. But before Ludovic Deléchat had accepted, Mohammad Reza Zonouzi, owner of Tractor Sazi FC accused the Swiss national of “collusion with the plaintiffs fighting against Iranian football.”

Zonouzi claimed that Ludovic Deléchat had planned to prepare Iran’s defense in a way that would mean foreign plaintiffs would get the upper hand against Iran. He also accused Ali Khatir, former deputy president of Esteghlal Football Club, and Houshang Nasirzadeh, former CEO of Machine Sazi FC, of colluding with the Swiss lawyer.

One of the most important aspects of the case was that although Mehdi Taj was no longer the president of the Iranian Football Federation, he used his influence over Heydar Baharvand, the acting president of the federation, to present Ludovic Deléchat as Iran’s defense attorney in the Marc Wilmots case. In fact, at the time, there were reports that Mehdi Taj was doing his best to ensure that Iran’s federation would lose the case brought by Marc Wilmots.

Unlike in the past and contrary to its internal disciplinary committee’s bylaws, FIFA appointed only one judge to handle this case because, it said, of the coronavirus pandemic.

On the evening of Monday, August 17, Reza Shah-Mansouri, the Iranian football federation’s lawyer, told a TV program claimed he and his colleagues had drawn up a letter of complaint to FIFA, stating that the case must be handled by three judges, not one, but both the federation’s board of directors and Ludovic Deléchat, its attorney in the case of Marc Wilmots, opposed the letter being sent.

Riches Beyond His Dreams

Today, it appears to be very likely that Marc Wilmots will receive €8.3 million from Iran, even though a glance at his pay in recent years shows that this salary is unprecedented. Besides the $130,000 from Ivory Coast, in 2014 he received $830,000 for his job as head coach of the Belgian National Football Team. A year before this, he agreed a contract for only €860,000 a year. In other words, from 2013 until he signed he the contract with Iran in 2019, he had a total income of around $1.8 million.

Before announcing its ruling in writing, FIFA customarily first informs the heads of national federations, attorneys of the opposing sides and the football confederation of the relevant continent, in this case the Asian Football Confederation. In addition, taking into account the way that Marc Wilmots’ contract was drawn up, the attorney that Iran chose to defend its case at FIFA and the way that it handled the case, it seemed likely even at an earlier stage that Iran would lose.

If FIFA’s customary process in announcing its ruling is followed it would mean that in less than 30 days Iran must pay Marc Wilmots over €6 million, in addition to the €2.3 he has already been paid . This is the largest amount of money that a coach has received in the history of Asian football. And this is a football environment that has seen top coaches at the helm, including Arsène Wenger, Carlos Queiroz, Miroslav Blažević, Marcello Lippi, Bernd Schuster and Arie Haan. None of them were paid anything close to this amount, let alone for less than six months of coaching.

“We knew nothing!”

The FIFA ruling orders Iran to pay the full amount of Wilmots’ three-year contract plus five percent interest for the delay. It states that its verdict is “final,” says it “cannot be appealed” in FIFA’s arbitration courts. If Iran does not agree with the verdict, the ruling states, its only recourse will be for Iran to present the case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS).

All the available evidence gives credence to the speculation that the Iranian federation intentionally lost in the case of Marc Wilmots and Mehdi Taj and his men at the federation’s board of directors wanted Wilmots to receive more money on purpose.

Iran’s football federation’s failed to inform FIFA of the two million euros already paid to Marc Wilmots.

While now Iran has been ordered to pay €2.2 million plus five percent interest on top of the two million euros that it has already paid to Marc Wilmots, Reza Salehi Amiri, president of Iran’s National Olympic Committee claims that he knows nothing of the clauses in Wilmots’ contract. Ali Kafashian, vice president of the Iranian Football Federation, says that criticisms of the federation’s management are “wrong” and “ill-timed”. And Mehdi Alinejad, Deputy Sports Minister who has been charged with the doping of Iranian Wushu athletes in international competitions, has claimed that the higher echelons of the Sports Ministry were never informed of the clauses in Wilmots’ contract.

Ehsan Ghazizadeh Hashemi, a member of the parliament, has demanded that all properties belonging to the officials involved in Marc Wilmots’ contract be seized. “These gentlemen must be banned from leaving the country and must pay this enormous sum out of their own pockets,” he said. “I ask the security and judiciary agencies to seize all their assets.”

On August 18, the Iranian Students’ News Agency (ISNA) claimed that Wilmots’ contract is 13 percent more than the whole budget that had been allocated for the participation of the Iranian Olympic and Paralympic teams in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics games.

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.