Last year, in the midst of a wave of protest following Iran's disputed June 12 elections, the country's national pro league players found themselves far from home – in Seoul, South Korea. Karimi, their captain, appeared anxious before the critical face-off with the local team, which would decide which of the two would get the chance to compete for a World Cup title.
Karimi (middle) on football field (Photo: AP)
But Karimi was not just mulling soccer strategies. As he walked onto the field along with three of his teammates, fans glimpsed green bracelets – symbols of the revolution – on their wrists.
For the millions watching at home the message was clear: Karimi and his colleagues had decided to display before the entire world their contempt for President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his cohorts, whom many believe fabricated the election results. For protestors battling Revolutionary Guard henchmen on the streets, he became an immediate hero.
A fateful drink of water
The 31-year old soccer legend has one of Iran's most impressive track records. Nicknamed "the Asian Maradona", he played with Bayern Munich for two years before joining Iran's Steel Azin, fast becoming their star player.
But the Iranian government was disdainful of the players' rebellious act, and when the team returned home they were suspended by the Football Federation of the Islamic Republic of Iran (FFIRI). Eventually, the International Football Federation (FIFA) secured Karimi's return to the team.
It was not the first time Karimi had been in trouble with the authorities. Two years ago he caused state-wide uproar by publicly deriding Tehran's football federation, announcing that it was being led by state officials who hadn't the first clue about the game. He was subsequently suspended for a short term.
But the football star was headed for a downfall. Last week, after a routine practice with Steel Azin, Karimi was spotted drinking water on the sidelines during the month of Ramadan, which requires Muslims to do without food or water during the sunlight hours.
Karimi has denied any wrongdoing and insisted he has always heeded religious values, especially during Ramadan when devout Muslims fast from dawn until dusk.
Athletes have long battled their forced adherence to the fast during strenuous days of practice, mostly to no avail in Islamic countries. Many European teams have refused to allow Muslim players to observe the Ramadan because of the danger it poses to their health, and in Pakistan a long-standing debate over the national pastime, cricket, is revisited every year.
Mostafa Ajorloo, a senior Revolutionary Guards figure and on of Steel Azin's managers, immediately suspended Karimi from the team. "He violated the club's rules by publicly breaking the fast," Ajorloo said. "For us, no player is above traditional religious rites."
Steel Azin's website announced, "The club had to sack one of its players, Ali Karimi, for not being obedient and failing to fast during the Ramadan, while other Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset." The website added that Karimi had "insulted officials of the Iranian football federation as well as the team's supervisor from Tehran".
However, late on Tuesday Steel Azin FC said on its website that Karimi has been reinstated and would be allowed to play again after paying a fine of 40,000 dollars.
The club's disciplinary committee found Karimi guilty of disrespecting Iran's football federation.
'Better to drink than steal votes'
Ajorloo's motives appear to be more than purely religious. Just a few days before he was suspended, Karimi once again criticized the club's management and even tossed in a personal note about Ajorloo, saying he did not deserve to be manager and that he had only been given the position because of his office with the Revolutionary Guards.
After his suspension Karimi denied having said anything about Ajorloo to the Iranian state news agency, and added that he was "a faithful Muslim".
The soccer star's suspension quickly became a matter of national interest. It was picked up by many of the republic's papers and an Iranian TV channel supervised by the government ran clips from Karimi's games, showing only his missed goals and fouls.
But Karimi's fans rallied in his defense. A Facebook page supporting the player signed 40,000 people in just a few hours, with many voicing their discontent in comment form.
"It's better to drink water than to steal votes," said one fan. "The breaking of the fast is just an excuse for persecuting the greens (opposition protestors)", said another. "Long live the magic green." Fans who attended a pro league game this weekend held up posters with Karimi's picture which said, "We don't want Steel Azin without Ali Karimi".
The soccer player's teammates also backed him publicly, telling press agencies that they had all broken the fast that day by eating lunch. "I joined this club because of Karimi. We will do everything to return him to the team's leadership," said Mohammad Gholami. Ali Daei and Mehdi Mahdavikia, two of Iran's most famous players, declared that the decision to fast was one each man should be allowed to make for himself.
"Karimi dared to say what millions of Iranians are afraid to," said Khodadad Azizi, another of the republic's star soccer players. "Fasting or not fasting is not a decision that someone can impose on the people. We are all responsible for our own conduct in the next world."
The public outcry was a success. Steel Azin's management held a rare emergency meeting over the weekend, afterwards announcing that Ajorloo would soon be quitting the club. Karimi was eventually reinstated, but the player said he would refuse to come back unless Ajorloo was ousted from the team's management.
If Karimi's condition is fulfilled, he will no doubt be publicly viewed as having scored a critical goal against the ayatollah regime.
AFP contributed to this report
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