Green party leader Nouripour discusses Qatar, Iran, and Germany at the World Cup in Kicker Magazine interview

Green party leader Nouripour discusses Qatar, Iran, and Germany at the World Cup in Kicker Magazine interview

By Peter Vice   @ViceytheSS

For most of the denizens of the Bundesrepublik, football and politics remain tightly intertwined. German interest in the Qatari-hosted FIFA 2022 World Cup has remained muted three days into the tournament. Many German football fans have kept to their vow to abstain from watching the competition. Public viewing remains mostly non-existent and several ordinarily sports-centric bar and restaurant venues deliberately refuse to switch their television sets on.

Calls to boycott the World Cup amongst German club fan societies originated from the high reported number of deaths among guest workers responsible for constructing stadiums in the host country. The ongoing controversy over FIFA’s banning of the “OneLove” diversity armband hasn’t helped matters either. In recent World Cup matches involving Iran and Saudi Arabia, German attention on social media gravitated towards the political failings of the respective regimes rather than the football.

One of Germany’s leading football journalists, Julian Franzke of German footballing magazine Kicker, conducted a fascinating interview appearing in the Monday print edition of the country’s preeminent footballing publication. Omid Nouripour, the chairman of Germany’s Green Party (Bündnis 90), emigrated to Germany from Iran at the age of 13. The 47-year-old who recently ensured that the Greens joined their first federal governing coalition since 2005 also happens to be an avid football fan and lifelong supporter of Eintracht Frankfurt and FC Persepolis.

The two men covered a range of very interesting and highly nuanced topics in their discussion. The conversation constitutes an informative look into the mind of the politically engaged German football fan, not to mention a dedicated public servant with belief in the potential of global football to raise awareness of important issues.

Bulinews’ Peter Vice supplies a translation of the interview transcript.

German Green Party Co-Chairman Omid Nouripour
German Green Party Co-Chairman Omid Nouripour boellstiftung CC-BY-SA 2.0

Long-time German MP Omid Nouripour has been serving his hometown of Frankfurt and the Bundesrepublik at large for over 18 years. The co-leader of Germany’s Green party is just the second German of Iranian descent to serve in parliament. A recent interview with Julian Franzke of German footballing magazine Kicker was published on the very same day that the England-Iran group stage fixture kicked off Day Two of 2022 FIFA World Cup.
Though there certainly was reportage on the match itself Germany, the bulk of media attention focused on the protests lodged by both the Iranian players and fans inside the stadium in support of the Mahsa Amini protest movement. Many German football fans active on social media refrained from discussing the match at all, preferring instead to express solidarity with those sharing the stories of the lives lost during the regime’s brutal suppression of the protests.

Sarina Esmaeilzadeh, a 16-year-old Borussia Dortmund enthusiast purportedly beaten to death by Iranian security forces, proved a big topic of discussion in German footballing circles. In his interview with Franzke, Nouripour addressed the current state of affairs in his native country. The veteran politician also spoke on German relations with Qatar, FIFA, and how he (as a football lover who founded an Eintracht Frankfurt support group in the German Bundestag) squared his love of the game with the issue of this controversial tournament.

A transcript of the interview:

[Journalist] Franzke: Mr. Nouripour, many football fans are looking forward to the World Cup in Qatar with either negative or mixed emotions. What’s your stance as both a fan and politician? Will you be there?

[Subject] Nouripour: I’m not going, and apart from the Minister of Sport, Nancy Faeser (SPD), I don’t know of anyone in the regime who is considering a trip to Qatar. I think that’s the right thing to do. I do have mixed feelings about the World Cup. The criticism of the conditions during the construction of the stadiums, but also the human rights situation in the country are depressing. As a fan, I’ll be watching the games and rooting for Germany and Iran.

Franzke: German Economics Minister Robert Habeck (Die Grünen) traveled to Qatar in March to agree an energy partnership. There are also close economic ties with German companies. One could accuse the Germans of double standards in view of the loud criticism of the World Cup in Qatar. How do you see that?

Nouripour: That’s something else entirely. We have an energy emergency due to Putin’s war in Ukraine. Robert Habeck is working intensively to find solutions, and we’re paying for the gas we buy. But that doesn’t mean we’re going to let ourselves be silenced by it, certainly not when it comes to addressing human rights. It is nevertheless true that, when it comes to concretely awarding [energy] contracts, we Germans should also put our own house in order.

Franzke: Are you referring to the [bribery] controversy surrounding the awarding of the 2006 World Cup to Germany?

Nouripour: Yes, there were serious irregularities back then. However, the criticism of the human rights situation and the situation of the workers who built the stadiums is fundamentally sound. Some things have improved, but that is not enough. The question also arises: Will the improvements last beyond the World Cup? For human rights work, it is a good thing that a spotlight has been shone on Qatar. If we avert our gaze the day after the final, nothing will change in the long term.

Franzke: We should recall Russia, where things were still relatively illiberal at the 2018 World Cup compared to today, even not by our standards.

Nouripour: Unfortunately, Russia was never liberal under Putin. And sporting events will not stop dictatorships like Russia from being dictatorships. The Qataris are doing this World Cup for image reasons, so they have an interest in ensuring that no criticism sticks to them. That’s why we have a special responsibility beyond the World Cup.

We have to keep at it and keep putting pressure on the rulers to substantially improve the situation of workers, homosexuals and women’s rights. To date, for example, women under the age of 23 are not allowed to have a passport in Qatar without the permission of their father or husband.

Franzke: After the World Cup, Qatar will disappear from the public eye. What can politicians do to prevent the progress made from being undone?

Nouripour: It is the task of politics not only to talk about the human rights situation in the run-up to and during the World Cup. We must remain persistent and keep insisting, for example, that the statutory minimum wage that has been introduced is actually implemented. Has there been a lasting improvement in the housing situation for workers? We must not let up on that.

Franzke: But, these are domestic issues. Are German politicians not powerless in the final analysis?

Nouripour: I don’t see it that way. Relations are never a one-way street. We decided to buy gas there because of Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine, but the Qataris also want something from us. Their image is enormously important to them. They want to be seen as a reliable partner in foreign policy and trade. They are also competing with other actors in the region for power and influence.

They are gearing up for the time when oil and gas no longer play the role they do worldwide today. That’s why they are also investing heavily in our country and spending vast sums on footballing sponsorship, for example for FC Bayern. It is by no means the case that we are just solicitors. We are dependent on one another.

Franzke: Should the statutes at FIFA be formulated in such a way that no more World Cups can be hosted in countries without democratic forms of governments?

Nouripour: It is true that a World Cup should be held on all continents, not only in Europe and South America. And it’s an illusion to believe that in a federation in which the majority of 211 members are not democracies, World Championships in the future can only be hosted in democracies.

But it is precisely the Europeans, who continue to have an overwhelming market share and thus a great deal of power in the world governing body, who must ensure that human rights standards are given top priority in the awarding process. Otherwise, North Korea will eventually get a World Cup because they have bribed enough people.

In this sense, it’s important if more democracies make an effort to bring these tournaments to their country.

Franzke: What kind of behavior do you expect from the German team and delegation on the ground?

Nouripour: These are adults who are playing football there and are free to decide for themselves whether they want to express themselves politically. We shouldn’t act as if footballer has to be a political hero. Of course, I’m pleased about anyone who sends a signal, regardless of the team. The DFB president has repeatedly made his views clear in the run-up to the tournament, and I very much welcome that.

Franzke: In the end, will there be lots of symbolism, but no lasting change?

Nouripour: That remains to be seen. Important issues such as the treatment of workers or the rights of women and homosexuals are at least on the agenda. And even if these issues are dealt with at a different level in our country, they are still far from settled. We should use the attention to these issues to move forward in the debate in German society as well.

Franzke: In the end, will there be lots of symbols, but no lasting change?

Nouripour: That remains to be seen. Important issues such as the treatment of workers or the rights of women and homosexuals are at least on the agenda. And even if these issues are dealt with at a different level in our country, they are still far from settled. We should use the attention to these issues to move forward in the debate in German society as well.

Franzke: Attention will also persist because FC Bayern will again move to Qatar for its winter training camp. This, like the multi-million dollar advertising partnerships with the Emirate, is causing criticism. Uli Hoeneß said at the last annual general meeting, “This is the Bayern Munich soccer club, not the Amnesty International general meeting.” Is the German record champion setting a bad example?

Nouripour: These are decisions made by FC Bayern. The consequences must be drawn by the clubs and their members themselves. And we can’t pretend that sports can take over from us in politics. What struck me as particularly bitter in the debate was Uli Hoeneß’ undercutting the work of Amnesty International. That was not respectful.

Franzke: Mr. Nouripour, the Iranian regime is fighting the protests of its own population, which broke out after the death of Mahsa Amini, in a murderous way. Former FIFA President Sepp Blatter then called for Iran to be excluded from the World Cup. Do you agree?

Nouripour: First of all, I must say that I have very great difficulty taking even the most well-meaning words of Sepp Blatter seriously. Where was his sense of human rights when he was FIFA president? The question about the exclusion of the Iranian team cuts two ways.

On the one hand, an exclusion could increase international pressure against the Iranian regime. On the other hand, we should support those who are currently taking to the streets against the government. The Iranian exile media “Iran International,” which was classified as a terrorist organization by the regime recently, ran the headline after national coach Carlos Queiroz’s kickoff press conference: “Now the real nightmare for the regime begins.”

At a press conference, Queiroz said he would allow protests by his players because everyone had the right to express themselves.

Franzke: How are the players expressing themselves?

Nouripour: All but two of the players have so far been critical of the regime, with none singing along with the national anthem or rejoicing after goals. Legends like Ali Karimi and Mehdi Mahdavikia have declined FIFA invitations to the World Cup because they have other priorities.

You can see from this that this team can make a big difference and generate a lot of attention for the plight of the people and the protests. With this in mind, I believe that exclusion would not be right because participation can help the protesters.

Franzke: So the regime can hardly coordinate the World Cup participation [in accordance with their views]?

Nouripour: That’s right. The league was also cancelled early, with pictures circulating on social media under the headline: “The saddest league in the world.” If you look at the pictures of the trophy presentation at the Supercup, the winners just looked depressed.

Franzke: You referenced two players [Mehdi Torabi and Vahid Amiri] that aren’t speaking out. Could that split the team?

Nouripour: They also play for my Reds [FC Persepolis of Tehran], I think that’s terrible. In interviews, the two of them thank the Iranian government, while on the streets this very government is taking violent action against its own people. That’s an absolute travesty.

The great heroes are Ali Karimi and Ali Daei, who are well known in Germany and were always enemies, but have now publicly reconciled and joined forces. Karimi is constantly insulted in public by regime officials. Daei has had his passport revoked and is currently not allowed to leave the country.

Franzke: There were rumors that he [Daei] had been arrested.

Nouripour: I don’t know that for sure, but even so, the pressure on him is enormous. The story of Sardar Azmoun, of Leverkusen, is extremely exciting. He is one of the clearest supporters of the protests in Iran. Azmoun himself had only announced at very short notice before the squad nomination that he was fit again after an injury.

Rumor has it that the FA wanted to force the national coach to do without what was probably his best player. And that Queiroz had threatened to resign. That’s probably why the press conference to announce the World Cup squad was canceled and rescheduled at the last minute. The fact that Azmoun is now on the team is thus a gratifying statement. And also thanks to the courage of the Portuguese coach.

Franzke: What significance does the national team have among the people of Iran?

Nouripour:  People are also protesting the international isolation the regime has led the country into over four decades. The national team is always a window to the outside world. There are international glimpses; David Beckham’s games in the ’90s in particular were party events in Iran, with classes of girls gathering to watch.

In Brazil there is a saying, “Football is religion.” In Iran, football is a distraction from a religion imposed by the state at all levels. Football is a respite for people. That’s why security outside and inside the stadiums is so heavy, because there are a lot of political protests.

Franzke: In the group stage, Iran will face, of all countries, the U.S., England and Wales.

Nouripour: They actually only play against countries that have been turned into enemies by the regime. Every gesture, every handshake, every hug will be a great signal against the government’s policies and for the country to be open to the world. Even in the 1998 World Cup, there was the Iran vs. USA match with a communal team photo. Surely, there is no better symbol of peace.

Franzke: What do you think the chances are that the protests in Iran will be successful and that the Mullah regime will abdicate?

Nouripour: I don’t know, but I have never received so many messages from people who are determined to continue demonstrating and are no longer afraid. Especially the younger people are protesting in the streets because they see that, after 43 years, there is are no prospects unless something changes.

I don’t know what will happen, but the women in particular, who are leading this de facto, will not simply admit defeat. The question is how much more suffering the regime can bring upon the population before it loses. No one believes in reforms and reform by the regime anymore.

Franzke: Is there a threat of a situation as that in Belarus, where dictator Alexander Lukashenko had the protests put down and remains in office?

Nouripour: The Iranians have already had been too often been repressed times for the regime’s violence to be any more widely intimidating. It is not clear what will happen next. But everyone remembers the many previous atrocities. Most recently, at least 1500 people were killed in protests in the fall of 2019.

It is customary to mourn the dead on the third, seventh and 40th days. At each of these mourning ceremonies, there are incidents in which people are also killed again. For them there are then again mourning ceremonies. The suffering is immeasurable – the many people, the grief of the relatives – and it increases every day. The number of children killed is constantly increasing. The last victim was ten years old.

Franzke: If it were up to you alone, what political sanctions would you impose on Iran?

Nouripour: My party’s position is that we want to classify the groups that harass their own population as a terrorist organization. Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock (die Grünen) is trying to push that at the EU level. I was on the phone with a woman who was briefly freed before having to return to prison unjustly for the next few years.

She said to me, “Can you please at least make sure that those who kill our children don’t send their own children to Europe to party?” This is legally complicated because the rule of law cannot prosecute children for the actions of their parents. But we can freeze their parents’ assets in the EU if they are members of the Revolutionary Guards and we classify them as a terrorist organization.

That would be the most effective tool.

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