Even before Iran’s Islamic Revolution, Iranian clubs participating in the Asian Club Championship took the field with two or three auxiliary players from other clubs. The clubs represented the country as much as Team Melli and the Iranian Football Federation helped them in every possible manner. For instance, when Tehran blue side Esteghlal won Iran’s first Asian title in 1970, they had three auxiliary players, two from Persepolis and one from Pas.
But there is another story this season: Iranian representatives Persepolis, Foolad, and Tractor Sazi are participating in the AFC Champions league without some of their best players, who lack a certificate proving the conclusion of their military service.
Established a century ago, Iran’s Mandatory Military Service Law has remained controversial especially as the country’s youths have increased in number over the last two decades.
For many years, Iranian footballers had one solution: playing for military clubs. But in recent years with the remarkable increase in wages, players have become reluctant to spend two prime years of their career on low military salaries. As a result they’ve tried to find alternative solutions such as university courses or fake certificate proving their military service.
At the conclusion of last year’s IPL season, news emerged of the arrest of a criminal band that forged fake military service certificates confessing that Iranian players were amongst their clients.
The news was swept under the rug as Team Melli went to the 2014 World Cup, but
before the start of the current season IPL league officials announced the long list of delinquent players. Some such as Bakhtiar Rahmani, Arash Afshin, and Soroush Rafiei were key players of 2013-14 champions Foolad, leading to unfounded rumors that the club’s title would be revoked.
Persepolis defenders Mehrdad Pooladi and Hossein Mahini were also in the list. Pooladi was Carlos Queiroz’s key player in the World Cup had many supporters; the Poruguese manager insisted on his return to the squad for the Asian Cup. Pooladi eventually went to Australia, but he was sent off after seeing a second yellow card in Iran’s legendary quarter final against Iraq. One Iranian news agency called him a “refugee soldier” in describing his culpability in the loss.
Pooladi, under contract with Qatari club Al-Shahaniya, didn’t return to Iran after the Asian Cup, resulting in an official response from Iran’s military.
“We will use every legal means to bring Pooladi back to Iran so that he fulfills his military service,” said General Moussa Kamali, the general staff officer responsible for manpower, according to Fars.
“If he does not obey, he can say good-bye to Team Melli.”
The scandal only increased scrutiny of other players: military club Tractor Sazi were not allowed to use several players who joined the team after their fake military certificates were discovered.
Though Persepolis have two wins from two matches in ACL group play, Foolad and Tractor Sazi have just one victory between them. With four matches remaining the two struggling sides still have time to recover, but they surely feel the absense of their “soldiers.”
Like in South Korea, another country with mandatory military service, there is another option for players hoping to avoid the army: glory on the pitch. These days, Iranian players hope to emulate former Hamburg star Mehdi Mahdavikia’s performance against the USA in the 1998 World Cup; following that performance, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khameni exempted the country’s captain from military duty.