Canada Soccer is paying Iran’s soccer federation $400,000 to play a controversial exhibition game next month in Vancouver, according to the head of Iran’s national team.
The team’s director, Hamed Estili, told Iranian state-affiliated media outlet Tasnim that for the first time in 22 years, Iran’s soccer federation will make a profit off a friendly match.
Canada Soccer did not answer CBC’s questions about the quoted sum or where the money is coming from. The organization said it’s normal practice to pay teams for matches like this.
“As is the standard in international soccer, match appearance fees are generally provided to the visiting team to cover expenses that may not be included within the agreement, such as international and or domestic travel, ground costs and insurance,” said Canada Soccer in a statement issued to CBC News.
Estili told Iranian media that after it pays for the team’s expenses, Iran’s soccer federation could bank $200,000 of the payment.
Estili said Iran negotiated with more than 20 other lower-ranked teams to try to arrange exhibition matches — and they all said Iran’s soccer federation would have to pay them a fee in order to play.
His comments come as Canada Soccer comes under heavy pressure to call off the nearly sold-out June 5 match at BC Place.
Victims who lost loved ones on Flight PS752 have called the game a slap in the face. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) shot down Flight PS752 in 2020 shortly after takeoff in Tehran. Surface-to-air missiles took down the Ukrainian aircraft, killing everyone onboard — including 85 Canadians and permanent residents.
Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart has condemned the game and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said he disagrees with the decision to organize it.
Experts and media reports say the IRGC, the country’s elite military force, has taken over sports clubs in Iran directly or indirectly over the past 20 years due to their growing popularity and profitability.
The news outlet Politico reported Tuesday that US President Joe Biden has finalized his decision to keep Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps on the United States’ terrorist blacklist.
Canada, unlike the US, has only placed a part of the IRGC on its terrorism list — despite a 2018 Commons resolution that called on the federal government to designate the IRGC in its entirety as a terrorist entity.
The federal government said that while it provided more than $3 million in federal funding in 2022-23 to Canada Soccer, that money was not used to pay for this game.
Sport Canada said it was not consulted about the Iran match and that Canada Soccer is an independent organization that did not receive federal funding this year for the men’s team.
Canada Soccer did not answer when CBC asked whether any federal resources were used to organize this game.
Prime Minister Trudeau said again Tuesday that he thinks the game “is a bad idea” and distanced his government from the funding.
“I can assure you that Sport Canada has not delivered any funding for this game,” Trudeau said at a press conference in Vancouver on Tuesday.
WATCH: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau discusses upcoming exhibition soccer match with Iran
Adding to the controversy surrounding the game, Estili was photographed at a birthday party in Tehran last month with an alleged Iranian intelligence informant with ties to the IRGC who is wanted by the FBI.
At the time of the party, a warrant had been out in the US for Mahmoud Kahzein’s arrest for almost a year. He was being sought on charges related to a plot to kidnap international targets, including three people in Canada. The FBI is now looking into the matter, according to a person at the center of the alleged kidnapping scheme.
Estili has not responded to CBC’s request for comment, submitted last week on Instagram.
Anthony Housefather is the first Liberal MP to join the calls for Canada Soccer to cancel the game.
He said he’s encouraging Immigration Canada to carefully consider whether visas should be granted based on individuals’ past history and associations with the IRGC.
“Because I love sports so much, it just chagrined me that we would be, in my view, demeaning Canadian sport by inviting a team from a country that we have no diplomatic relationship with Canada, when there are so many other countries that we could compete with that we could be proud to have a match with,” said Housefather.
Housefather said that the game serves to condone “a regime that violates human rights and spreads terrorism throughout the Middle East.”
Canada Soccer has declined CBC News’ repeated requests for an interview since May 16.
“Canada Soccer will continue to follow all applicable federal and international protocols, laws and procedures for hosting the match,” the soccer organization said in a statement.
CBC News sports contributor John Molinaro has been covering soccer as a journalist for the past 20 years.
Molinaro said it’s normal for countries to make a profit off friendly games and some high-ranking teams command millions. In this case, he said, it appears Canada Soccer only viewed the match as a way for Team Canada to prepare for the 2022 FIFA World Cup and didn’t consider the broader political ramifications.
“This is kind of a bit of a get for Canada. It’s playing a team that’s also going to be playing in the World Cup in Qatar,” he said. “I get the sense they probably didn’t consider the PR fallout. It would appear to me they only looked at it from a sporting perspective.”
Iran is ranked 21st in the FIFA men’s world rankings. Canada is ranked 38th.
Molinaro said it’s interesting that Canada is playing Iran for a friendly match around the same time the US is playing Morocco for a similar game. Canada is playing Morocco in the first round of the World Cup in Qatar, while the US is going to play Iran first.
That could mean coaches and scouts from both North American teams could cross the border to see firsthand how their competitors play, said Molinaro.
Housefather, a former athlete swimmer, argues there are other competitive teams Canada could meet that don’t come from countries with “horrible” human rights records.
Minister of Sport Pascale St.-Onge said in a statement Tuesday that she understands the announcement “causes pain for the families and loved ones of the victims” and “we are disappointed that Canada Soccer did not take this into consideration.”