Secret American documents published by WikiLeaks have revealed that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is exploiting the country's soccer team for political gain, German weekly Der Spiegel reported over the weekend.
In the documents, American diplomats stationed in Abu Dhabi told the State Department in June that Ahmadinejad was meddling in the national soccer squad's affairs and that Iranian intelligence agencies were spying on some of the team's leading players.
According to Der Spiegel, the diplomats said most of the players on the Iranian national squad support the reformist movement, which staunchly opposes the regime in Tehran. However, the report said, players refrain from expressing their political views in public.
The diplomats claimed that in June 2008 Ahmadinejad prevented the arrest of soccer star Ali Karimi, who refused to fast during the holy month of Ramadan.
In another incident, the diplomats said, Ahmadinejad personally intervened to have the national team's head coach, Ali Daei, fired following a loss to Saudi Arabia.
According to the diplomats, Ahmadinejad feared more losses would frustrate the Iranian public and lead to anti-government demonstrations.
The Iranian national soccer team is considered one of the best in Asia and has participated in two of the last four World Cups.
During a qualifying match against South Korea ahead of last summer's World Cup in South Africa, some of the players wore green ribbons on their wrists, symbolizing their support for the opposition movement.
Iranian players with green ribbons (Archive photo: AFP)
The match took place as thousands of Iranians took to the streets in protest against the re-election of Ahmadimejad. The protestors claimed the vote was rigged. Dozens of demonstrators were killed during the unrest, the worst Iran had seen since the Islamic revolution of 1979.
Der Spiegel also reported that an American diplomat in Dubai sent Washington a memo claiming that an Iranian loss to the United Arab Emirates could hurt Ahmadinejad's status.
"A loss to the UAE, Iran's major political and economic rival in the Strait of Hormuz would significantly hurt Iranian pride and may damage Ahmadinejad's image in the eyes of the Iranian voter," the memo read. "According to our sources, Ahmadinejad cannot afford a loss on the eve of the elections when he is facing such a tight race."
Iran won the game, which was held in Tehran, 1:0.
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