An Iranian soccer star takes on the state

Bloomberg l Golnar Motevalli: It’s almost impossible for anyone who isn’t part of Iran’s conservative establishment to freely criticize the government or other national institutions using the country’s tightly-controlled state broadcaster. Soccer stars are among the few exceptions — as one proved this week.

Each Monday evening, a hugely popular show called “Navad,” or “90,” covers topical issues in the sport, ranging from the performance of the Iranian team to accusations of corruption within its governing, state-funded authority. Presenters clash with officials, striking a chord with Iranians with few outlets for their frustrations, which recently have sparked protests over the economy, the Islamic dress code for women and the behavior of an often distant governing elite.

Former Bayern Munich midfielder Ali Karimi topped the list of trending Persian-language hashtags on Twitter on Tuesday after appearing on the show. In a live debate with the general secretary of Iran’s soccer federation, Mohammad Reza Saket, he accused the body of a lack of financial accountability, including over the sale of broadcasting rights. Iran’s top players were forced to train and play international matches using just a single set of kit, Karimi alleged. Saket appeared to confirm that claim.

“While you remain in the game, there will be no happiness in football,” Karimi told Saket during the show.

Karimi then lashed out at national manager Carlos Queiroz, the Portuguese coach who has worked at world-famous clubs including Manchester United and Real Madrid, and led Iran to qualification for two consecutive FIFA World Cup tournaments, including this year’s event in Russia.

The social media storm started soon after. One Twitter user, Emad Emadi, said the overwhelming support for Karimi “showed that people are eager to see that the government can be criticized.”