Friends and rivals Saeid Mollaei, now of Mongolia, left, and Israel's Sagi Muki could meet in the IJF Tel Aviv Grand Slam ©IJF

The International Judo Federation’s (IJF) 2021 Grand Slam season starts in Israel tomorrow as Tel Aviv hosts an event that could see a historic meeting between home judoka Sagi Muki and Saeid Mollaei.

Muki succeeded Mollaei as gold medallist in the under-81 kilograms event at the 2019 World Championships in Tokyo, where the latter judoka - who was competing for Iran - said he had deliberately lost his semi-final after being ordered not to risk a contest against an Israeli opponent.

This is something that the Islamic Republic has effectively banned through an unwritten rule for more than four decades.

Mollaei did not return to Iran, moving to Germany, and he has since received clearance to seek a Tokyo 2020 place representing Mongolia.

The IJF subsequently suspended the Iranian Judo Federation, with Iran appealing the decision to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), which heard the case last September.

The ruling is still awaited.

Before his third-round fight in Tokyo against the Olympic champion, Russian Khasan Khalmurzaev, Mollaei alleged he was called by the Iranian First Deputy Minister of Sport, Mohammad Reza Davarzani.

Davarzani reportedly ordered him to withdraw from the competition to avoid a potential contest between Iran and Israel.

Mollaei also claimed Davarzani made threats against him and his family.

On the opening day of the CAS hearing, Muki posted a message of support for his Iranian rival.

"An entire country against one citizen, one athlete," Muki wrote.

"Much has been published about this situation and I am proud that Saeid and I are close friends.

"In our conversations he has told me that and his family have been threatened many times and that he has not seen them for more than a year."

Much is expected of France's Romane Dicko, double European champion and winner of the 2021 World Masters title, in the IJF Tel Aviv Grand Slam that starts tomorrow ©Getty Images
Much is expected of France's Romane Dicko, double European champion and winner of the 2021 World Masters title, in the IJF Tel Aviv Grand Slam that starts tomorrow ©Getty Images

The execution in Tehran on September 12 of wrestler Navid Afkari, for allegedly stabbing a security guard to death and his involvement in demonstrations against the country's regime in 2018, has led to fears for the family of Mollaei, who remain in Iran.

Speaking at today’s draw for what will be the first Grand Slam to be hosted by Israel, the IJF President Marius Vizer hailed a "unique tournament at an exceptional time" and saluted the courage of Mollaei and his coach Mohammad Mansouri, describing them as "the bravest people I have ever met."

Mollaei is in Pool B of the men's under-81kg contest, and Muki Pool C.

Elsewhere in the draw for an event that will feature four world number ones, there will be sharp domestic competition in the women’s under-70kg class, where Olympic selections will be contested by France’s Marie Eve Gahié and Margaux Pinot, with Dutch pair Sanne van Dijke and Kim Polling also rivalling each other in a class that includes Croatia’s Barbara Matić, Britain’s Gemma Howell and Austria’s Michaela Polleres.

The men’s under-100kg category will also be one to watch given the presence of home athlete Peter Paltchik, the 2020 European champion, 2019 world bronze medallist Michael Korrel of The Netherlands, Azerbaijan’s Zelym Kotsoiev and Niyaz Iliasov of Russia.

In the women’s over-78kg class much is expected of France’s Romane Dicko, double European champion and this year’s IJF World Masters champion.