Recently a little-known Iranian preacher by the name of Hamid Reza Moaveniyan took aim at the football legend Ali Karimi, declaring the latter to be a “scoundrel” and a “bum”. In response, Karimi described the cleric as “trash” and invited his followers to judge which one of them was right.
The slanging match was one of several Karimi has gotten into of late. Since he retired from the pitch in 2014 his political stances have drawn the ire of Iran’s conservatives, the IRGC and regime supporters, and even Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
His online outbursts have also kept him out of the inner circles of Iranian football. In January 2021, he declared his candidacy to head the Iranian Football Federation. In the run-up to the vote, Ghasem Ranjbarian, president of Hormozgan Football League, told a live TV news program that members had been “asked” not to vote for Karimi. He duly went on to lose.
‘Illiterate Celebrity’ Refuses to Back Down
Last month, on July 6, Ali Karimi used similar language on Instagram after Hassan Abbasi, an IRGC officer, noted conspiracy theorist and the head of IRGC think-tank the Center for Borderless Security Doctrinal Analysis, called football players “worthless people with no understanding of politics, society, religion” or so-called “moral and Islamic principles”.
Karimi responded on his Instagram page: “At least we’ve made the hearts of a few people happy. What have you done, you bozo?”
This angry response, more than a few believe, was exactly what Abbasi wanted. By provoking the footballer, Abbasi and can play a role in his alienation from Iranian public life. Indeed, practically no-one who is anyone within the Islamic Republic has not attacked Karimi.
In February 2018, then-Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif emphasized Tehran’s support for anti-Israel militant action in spite of the economic costs. "We are proud of defending the people of Palestine," he declared, although “we are all under pressure”.
The next day, Ali Karimi asked on Instagram? "Which 'we' is under pressure, Doctor Zarif? Strictly speaking, it it 'you' or 'us'?" Voria Ghafouri, a current Iranian football star, also went after the foreign minister on Instagram: "You are not under pressure. Matter of fact, it’s the ordinary people who are under pressure."
This in turn caught the attention of none other than Ali Khamenei. Speaking later that month, the Supreme Leader declared: “Some people, who benefit from the country's peace and security, enjoying their jobs and their favorite sports, bite the hand that feeds them. They should know that security is ensured by the current policies of the Islamic Republic.”
Those in the audience audience knew very well that Khamenei was talking about political interjections by footballers, especially Ali Karimi and Voria Ghafouri, and that the statement was a command in no uncertain terms to shut up about the economy.
Elsewhere, from late 2017 through to early 2020, Fars News Agency repeatedly used the hashtag “#Illiterate_Celebrity” in social media posts about Ali Karimi. The first use was after Karimi congratulated Iranians on the birthday of Cyrus the Great, founder of the Persian Empire and a Biblical hero, also famous for famous for freeing the Jewish captives in Babylonia and allowing them to return home.
In response to that message, Isfahan’s Headquarters to Promote Virtue and to Prevent Vice filed a complaint against Karimi. In the complaint it also said Karimi had supported Masoud Shojaei, an Iranian-born footballer who, in 2017, had defied the ban on competing against Israeli sportsmen.
Karimi is one of a number of Iranian footballers who are very popular with ordinary Iranians because of their moral positions as well as prowess on the pitch. Among the others are Voria Ghafouri, Nasser Hejazi and the celebrated Ali Daei.
At the opposite end of the spectrum are athletes like Ehsan Haddadi, a discuss thrower and favorite of the Islamic Republic, on whom vast amounts of public cash have been lavished in reward for his loyalty to the regime. Apart from attending pro-regime rallies, Haddadi called for citizens who took part in the November 2019 protests to be dealt with as “rioters” and “foreign agents”.
By contrast, Karimi has backed the recent protests in Abadan, taken the regime to task over the IRGC’s downing of Ukrainian Airlines Flight 752, and held forth on crushing financial problems experienced by many Iranians after recent, radical food price hikes.
The Iranian regime has also shown itself to be particularly averse to charitable giving that falls outside its own institutions or institutional control. Karimi has form here too. In 2021, he turned down an invitation from the IRIB to appear in a presidential candidates’ debate organized by the Iranian Football Federation, instead giving his time to a talk show broadcast on the Filimo online network. He asked for a 2.5 billion-toman fee for that appearance, made out to the charity Servants of Imam Ali Ibn Abi Talib to spend on medicine for deprived children in Iran. In May 2020, he was also revealed to be the main donor in post-flood reconstruction efforts in Sistan and Baluchistan, which were led by the Iranian Wrestling Federation.
In November 2017, Karimi accused the Iranian Football Federation of financial corruption. He and others demanded that the federation’s president, Mehdi Taj, his deputy Ali Kafashian and secretary-general Mohammad Reza Saket go public about their salaries. When the Federation responded by denying any corruption within the ranks, Karimi published photos on Telegram of the gift cards sponsors had sent to Taj. He also wrote about the Federation’s role in the loss of 69 billion tomans, or close to $20 million at the time, of former sponsors’ money to clubs.