TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — George Steinbrenner often compared himself to powerful, iron-fisted leaders.
Assuredly, the late New York Yankees owner never had the Iranian president in mind.
An American diplomat did, calling Mahmoud Ahmadinejad the “The George Steinbrenner of Iran” in a leaked U.S. cable detailing the president’s meddling with his country’s national soccer team.
Steinbrenner’s name showed up among the thousands of State Department documents released by Wikileaks. His son was startled when told by The Associated Press.
“I think that’s a ridiculous comparison,” Yankees co-chairman Hank Steinbrenner said this week. “Obviously, it was very inappropriate.”
The confidential cable described how Ahmadinejad tried to use the popularity of Team Melli to improve his standing with the Iranian people ahead of the 2009 elections. The diplomat predicted the team’s struggles could affect the president’s results at the ballot box.
According to the document, Ahmadinejad, a former player, used his position to influence the firing of two coaches in a matter of weeks, an act George Steinbrenner was well versed in.
Known as The Boss, Steinbrenner changed managers 21 times during his 37½ years as owner.
The cable, out of the Dubai-based Iran Regional Presence Office, said Team Melli was suspended in 2006 from international tournaments because of Ahmadinejad’s “repeated violations” of soccer’s governing body’s rules against political interference.
The State Department declined to address the cable’s contents.
“We don’t comment on supposedly leaked documents,” State Department spokeswoman Leslie Phillips said.
The cable also said Iranian intelligence services had files on many of the team’s players. Steinbrenner was suspended from baseball for 2½ years for paying a self-described gambler to obtain negative information on Yankees outfielder Dave Winfield, with whom Steinbrenner was feuding.
Steinbrenner had a reputation for instilling fear in his players and staff, and outspending other teams to land the biggest-named players. During his tenure, the Yankees were called the “Evil Empire” by the rival Boston Red Sox.
He also knew how to win. The Yankees won seven World Series titles under Steinbrenner’s leadership.
As president of Iran — the country was a member of President George W. Bush’s “axis of evil” — Ahmadinejad regularly unleashed verbal attacks on the West and has called for the destruction of Israel.
Iran failed to qualify for the 2010 World Cup and, according to the cable, the Iranian people accused Ahmadinejad of jinxing the team after a loss to Saudi Arabia.
Ahmadinejad won re-election in 2009 amid claims of widespread electoral fraud, setting off protests and brutal government crackdowns that have continued for over a year.