By Payam Younesipour
November 25, 2021
What the now 18-year-old chess genius Alireza Firouzja has created could have been under the Iranian flag. His accolades and achievements could have been in the name of Iranian sports. His departure from Iran made headlines around the world, and he’s still admired and followed by many in the country.
In December 2019, the Iranian Ministry of Sports and Youth blocked the Iranian national chess team from being sent to the World Rapid Chess Championship, in order avoid their having to compete with Israelis. In response Firouzja, then aged just 16, announced that he would no longer compete under the Iranian flag, and promptly moved to France.
The conferment of French citizenship on Firouzja completed the move. In its coverage of his recent, near-record streak – seven wins and two draws – at the European Team Championships, the Austrian newspaper Standard introduced him as “Frenchman Alireza Firouzja.” This is probably just as well. In his country of birth, the boy once described as “chess champion of the world” has had a critical part of his biography excised from the domestic record.
A Flurry of Retractions
For some Islamic Republic insiders, not least media outlets close to the Revolutionary Guards, a few athletes are considered special emblems of Iranian prestige. Despite his departure, Firouzja is still one of them.
Another favored player with a quite different political stance is Arian Gholami, a chess player, Basij member and Ghasem Soleimani acolyte who, in recent years, has deliberately put himself in a position to compete against Israelis at international tournaments. He then puts on a show of withdrawing: a show regularly picked up by Fars, Varzesh-3, or Mashreq News.
But media outlets that specifically and generously covered Arian Gholami’s spurning of Israeli competitors – and his congratulatory meeting with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – have now deleted this coverage from their websites, on the recommendation of the Ministry of Sports and Youth.
This wasn’t an isolated incident but part of what seems to be a co-ordinated take-down of incriminating information. On November 9, ISNA news agency, like others inside Iran, announced that chess grandmaster Mohammad Amin Tabatabai had canceled a planned game with an Israeli in Latvia. But the story was taken down minutes later, as was coverage by the IRGC-adjacent Varzesh-3. The ghost of the article, entitled Tabatabai Did Not Play Against the Opponent of the Occupying Regime in Quds [Jerusalem], is still listed on Google, but the link takes would-be readers to a dead page. The same goes for Tasnim News Agency, Khabarpu and Mashreq News.
The Islamic Republic’s propaganda apparatus began to use the phrase “in defense of the oppressed people of Palestine” in the 1990s and 2000s to justify athletes’ withdrawal from contests with Israelis. The game now seems to be up. World sports federations have threatened Iran time and time again with suspension – and gone through with it in the case of judo – if it does not cease its overt political interference in sport. Probably in anticipation of this, the same propaganda outlets are now having to pull all the telltale coverage.
Iranian Media Tries to Downplay Firouzja’s Win for France
Under the French flag, Alireza Firouzja has continued to thrive. In the final rounds of the European Team Championship he brought his adoptive country close to first place after a dramatic win over Azerbaijani grandmaster Shakhriyar Mamedyarov; in the end, Ukraine won on tie breaks. With this victory, Firouzja also earned himself an ELO rating – the system used by FIDE, the international chess federation, to rank players’ skill levels on a scale from 100 to 3,000 – of 2,804. It made him the youngest ever player to break the 2,800 threshold, in what was technically the second-best chess performance in history.
The win received glowing praise from Iranian state media too. But Firouzja’s having chosen to leave Iran two years ago – and the reason for that choice – was whitewashed from the record. Varzesh-3 still described him in its coverage as an “Iranian genius… playing at the table of a French national team”. The same platform has repeatedly framed Firouzja as an “18-year-old Iranian chess genius” ever since he left Iran.
Earlier this year, Alireza Firouzja also won the Grand Swiss tournament in Latvia, paving the way for his presence at the top table in the World Chess Championship next year. In its report of the awards ceremony, Varzezh-3 wrote: “The playing of the French national anthem provoked Firouzja’s reaction when listening. He controlled himself and hated it.”
The IRGC’s favorite Mohammad Amin Tabatabai had withdrawn from the same contest to avoid playing an Israeli, and news of the gesture was covered – then swiftly deleted – by news outlets affiliated with the Guards. The regime knows full well that any acknowledgement of ideology bearing down on young sportspeople could put its sports federations at risk of fines and suspension.
In a recent speech on November 17, the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic referred to the mass emigration of athletes and elite sportspeople from Iran. These people were making young people feel disillusioned, he said, adding that those that encouraged emigration were “traitors to the country”.