The Iranian national women's ice hockey team is celebrating against-all-odds success at its first ever away event. The team has taken second place at an international tournament  in the United Arab Emirates after defeating the host.

The team lost to Russia in the finals after beating them earlier on in the competition. But it was still a huge achievement — especially given athletes in the newly-formed squad have received no support from Iranian sporting bodies.

Like women’s cycling, women’s ice hockey is enjoying increasing success in Iran, despite all the obstacles and an often hostile environment at home. IranWire looks back on its history and at the role women athletes have played in bringing the sport to greater prominence.

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The International Ice Hockey Federation was founded in 1908. But it wasn’t until 111 years later that Iran finally established, and then recognized, its own federation.

This was quite a feat, given that Iran doesn’t even have a standard ice rink. In some ways, that was justified; with Iran’s tropical climate, it has not necessarily seemed logical for an ice rink to take priority. That said, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a desert country, managed to position its national ice hockey team as the strongest in the Middle East two decades ago.

Now Iran’s team has beaten the best in the region, and on its home turf too.

The Iranian national women's ice hockey team was formed in 2020, essentially comprising skaters from Tehran’s Inline Skating Club. At the beginning of 2020, the Iranian Ice Hockey Federation received formal recognition from the international federation. But because there was no basic training available for teenagers and young people wanting to take part in the sport, ice skaters, including some existing stars, were invited to play ice hockey instead.

Eventually, these women athletes came to form the Iranian national ice hockey team. And yet, despite all their work and international recognition, the National Ice Hockey Federation of Iran refused to sponsor the team. It was, however, awarded sponsorship by the huge Tehran shopping complex Iran Mall.

"Security Issues" Block Professionalism

The team’s coaches and technical staff have faced serious obstacles in bringing the players up to standard. Their experience was very similar to what befell the Iranian women’s football team while they were training for the Asian Cup qualifiers. In their case, head coach Maryam Irandoost brought in her father as the team's technical director. But he was then blocked from standing in the technical area during matches after a hostile intervention from the Ministry of Sports and Youth and its intelligence department, which indicated it was inappropriate and un-Islamic for a man in his seventies to watch women play sport. The same was true for Jalal Basharzad, who was forced to train the goalkeepers from a distance.

Kaveh Sadeghi is the head coach of both the Iranian men's and women's ice hockey teams. But he, too, has been barred from traveling with the women’s team to the UAE and other tournaments abroad. Azam Sanaei was instead chosen to lead the team in her capacity as a captain.

So, with their captain but without a coach, the team headed off to the championships in the UAE. While there, their goal was to gain experience for the Asian Games in the Philippines, scheduled to take place in May 2022.

It is impossible to know how the team would have done if it had competed when the games had initially been scheduled to take place, back in spring 2021. Coronavirus put an end to that. But now, with the games happening next year, the team definitely has a better chance of greater success.

Ice hockey has now been “officially” played in Iran for about two years, but it’s continued to be difficult for anyone — boys, girls, women, men — with an interest in the sport to take it up with any real seriousness.

In particular, the country's women skaters have endured isolation and faced discrimination. In 2019, the Iranian filmmaker Sam Kalantari made No Place for Angels, a documentary about their experiences. It won the Fajr Film Festival Crystal Simorgh Award, along with four awards from the International Truth Film Festival, including the Special Audience Award, making it one of Iranian film’s most widely-celebrated Iranian documentaries in recent years.

Now despite the hardship, the team deserves to be proud, arriving back in their homeland with the unexpected title of second place in the UAE competition. Their message is clear: neither Iran’s Ice Hockey Federation nor the Ministry of Sports and Youth can stop them from pursuing their dreams and making an impact on the international stage.

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