Inviting Iran to Vancouver soccer friendly not ‘a very good idea’: Trudeau

The Association of Families of Flight PS752 Victims calling for Canada Soccer “to cancel the game immediately.”

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A Metro man who lost friends when Iran shot down a Ukrainian airliner is rejecting calls from some Iranian Canadians to cancel a friendly match between the Canadian and Iranian World Cup soccer teams in Vancouver.

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“I do not mix those guys playing for the national team with the Iranian government,” said Navid Sorkhou. “They’re proud football players and we shouldn’t punish them for playing.”

Sorkhou — whose friend and fellow engineer Ardalan Ebnoddin-Hamidi died with his wife and son on Flight 752 — is going to the game himself.

Sorkhou thinks the game is a certain sellout because of the big Iranian community in the Lower Mainland, many of whom are excited to see the team play here. “I have no doubt that they will be welcome in Canada,” he said.

“There will be people protesting,” I predicted. “They will want to have their voices heard by the Iranian government.”

But Sorkhou sees that as a good thing. “It could spark something in Iran,” he said, noting the expatriate community here is mostly opposed to the Iranian government.

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Hamed Esmaeilion, spokesperson for the Association of Families of Flight PS752 Victims, says his group has been against the match since it was first rumoured.

But the issue took center stage Tuesday when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was asked about it by a reporter, who said families who had lost loved ones considered the game a “slap in the face.”

“This was a choice by Soccer Canada,” Trudeau said in St. John’s. “I think it wasn’t a very good idea to invite the Iranian soccer team here to Canada. But that’s something that the organizers are going to have to explain.”

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was asked about the Canada-Iran friendly while in St. John's.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was asked about the Canada-Iran friendly while in St. John’s. Photo by Chris Jackson /Getty Images

An Iranian surface-to-air missile shot down Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 minutes after takeoff from Tehran on Jan. 8, 2020. Ottawa has said 55 Canadians and 30 permanent residents of Canada were among the dead.

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The Association of Families of Flight PS752 Victims called for Canada Soccer “to cancel the game immediately.”

“They call that a friendly game,” said Esmaeilion, whose wife Parisa and daughter Reera were among those who died on Flight 752. “What kind of friendship do we have with the Islamic Republic of Iran?

“We want the (Canadian) government to take them to the International Court. And instead of that, we get humiliated by them. I feel like I’ve been stabbed in the back. … After 28 months we don’t see any sign of seeking justice here. We don’t see signs of taking Iran to any international forum. And instead of that they invite the (Iran) soccer team here.”

Soccer Canada rejected the criticism.

“We believe in the power of sport and its ability to bring people from different backgrounds and political beliefs together for a common purpose,” it said in a statement. “Iran is one of 32 participating member associations at the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 and Canada Soccer continues to follow all international protocols in staging this match.

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We want soccer to grow here in Canada,” said Canadian international Lucas Cavallini. “Games like these are important for our nation, to bring the people closer to soccer,” added the Vancouver Whitecaps striker.

Esmaeilion, who noted the federal government is in charge of issuing visas, called it “sportswashing.”

Parisa Eghbalian, a dentist at Dawson Dental Centers in Guelph, and her daughter Reera Esmaeilion were killed in the Ukrainian International Airlines crash.  Also pictured, Hamed Esmaeilion, husband and father to Eghbalian and Reera.
Parisa Eghbalian, a dentist at Dawson Dental Centers in Guelph, and her daughter Reera Esmaeilion were killed in the Ukrainian International Airlines crash. Also pictured, Hamed Esmaeilion, husband and father to Eghbalian and Reera. Photo by Facebook/Parisa Eghbalian /Sun Media

Canada Soccer and the federal government had not responded to families who had complained about the game, he said.

“This is a way to normalize relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran. And this is not the first time it has been used by dictators. Russia has used this in the past and Iran is following,” he said.

He also said the Iranian team would be accompanied abroad by intelligence and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps officers.

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“And now we’re welcoming the IRGC officers, IRGC — the same entity that downed PS752. And we’re issuing visas for them. This is a danger for national security in this country.”

Esmaeilion also noted that Iran does not allow women to attend soccer matches. “This is against Canadian values,” he said.

The federal government has said Canada’s priority “is to seek answers and pursue justice by holding Iran accountable and pursuing reparations, while continuing to provide the families and loved ones of the victims with the support they need.”

Canada is hosting Iran on June 5 in Vancouver, part of a two-game homestand at BC Place Stadium. The Canadian men will open CONCACAF Nations League A play there against Curaçao on June 9 before closing out the FIFA international window with another CONCACAF Nations League game against Honduras in San Pedro Sula on June 13.

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Canada, ranked 38th in the world, and No. 21 Iran are both preparing for the FIFA World Cup in Qatar this November.

The Vancouver matches are the first for Canada on home soil since qualifying for the World Cup in a 4-0 win over Jamaica at Toronto’s BMO Field on March 27.

It also marks the Canadian men’s first visit to BC Place since March 2019 when they beat French Guiana 4-1 in CONCACAF Nations League qualifying.

The Canadians topped the final round of CONCACAF qualifying with an 8-2-4 record. Their last game was a 1-0 loss in Panama on March 30.

Canada has a 1-2-0 all-time record against Iran, winning the most recent encounter 1-0 in April 2001 in Cairo. Iran posted 1-0 wins in 1997 and 1999 games in Toronto and Edmonton, respectively.

The Iran fixture is one of the few World Cup warm-ups for John Herdman’s team in advance of Qatar. Herdman has said he will look to take the team to Europe in the fall to play several more matches to prepare for Qatar.

Canada opens World Cup play Nov. 23 against No. 2 Belgium before facing No. 16 Croatia on Nov. 27 and No. 24 Morocco on Dec. 1.

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