Ali Ahmed Al-Tarifi is not just another name in the Asian Football Confederation (AFC). A Saudi national, he has been professing his love for Iran for years. His many trips to the holy city of Mashhad to visit the shrine of the eighth Shia Imam is a good indicator of his sincere religious devotion. In his work for the AFC, Al-Tarifi teaches courses for Asian football referees. But outside of work, his mission is to be a strict enforcer of sharia rules.
So it may come as no surprise that he has recently turned his attention to Mahsa Ghorbani, an international referee — and a woman. Ghorbani will be an umpire at the forthcoming AFC Women’s Asian Cup competition, which will take place in Jordan between April 6 and April 20. She has been a FIFA international referee since 2017 and was the first woman in Asian competitions to refuse to wear the uniform designated for female referees from Islamic countries. Instead, she just put a hat on her head and ran out on the field. Ali Ahmed Al-Tarifi, the AFC supervisor at the game where she did this, didn’t wait to judge the quality of Ghorbani’s performance. He took no time to inform the AFC’s Referees Committee and the Security Department of Iran’s Ministry of Sports about Ghorbani’s behavior and his negative view of it.
Misogyny in Asian Football
Al-Tarifi’s view is shared by many, of course — it is just one aspect of the misogyny in Asian football. “How do you allow a Muslim woman dressed like this to be a referee in the football field?” Al-Tarifi asked. Perhaps his influence at the AFC and his close relations with football authorities in Iran have given Al-Tarifi the power to try to dash the chances of the first Iranian woman to one day become a referee at the FIFA Women's World Cup. And for what? Only because he does not approve of how she, as a Muslim woman, was dressed.
Mahsa Ghorbani was born in 1989 and holds a Master’s degree in sports marketing. “My family was not into sports,” she told IranWire. When I went into football, not only did they not support me, but they told me to choose another game if I wanted to go into sports. But now they are my biggest supporters for becoming a referee.”
Ghorbani started out in football in 2006, playing as goalkeeper for Tehran’s fourth district women’s football team. It was not that she wanted to become a professional footballer. She wanted to learn about football fouls close up and on the field. She played goalkeeper until 2008, when she started taking referee courses. From 2009, she was a referee for the Iranian Football League. “My parents tell me that when I watched football on TV, my eyes only followed the man on the field who was dressed differently,” Ghorbani said. “He was dressed in black and he was doing something that nobody else was doing. Not because I wanted to be different but because I was really in love with refereeing.”
After two years, she left playing football for good and devoted herself to being a referee. “In 2009, the AFC started its courses to teach referees,” Ghorbani said. “The courses were called Prospects for Asian Referees. To discover talent, they invited all under-25 referees. One of the tests was fluency in English. Another was physical fitness. I found out that for the confederation, physical fitness was what counted.”
In 2009, she was the only Iranian woman referee in Malaysia who spoke English fluently and who was trusted by the AFC. “Starting the year after,” she said, “they would send me invitations directly. The invitations said: Mahsa Ghorbani and two other referees should come and take referee courses.”
Aiming for “Elite Referee”
Ghorbani’s first experience being an Asian football referee was at the under-14 tournaments. She was invited to referee at the tournaments for five years in a row. Throughout 2016 she took AFC referee courses, and in 2017 she was accepted by FIFA as an international referee. She is now a certified referee for Asian football competitions. According to the FIFA rules, once international referees have proven to be successful in continental competitions, they become “elite referees” and are eligible to umpire for international competitions.
Ghorbani’s résumé as a referee includes the qualifying games for the AFC Asian Cup and the Asian youth football competitions. She refereed at the semi-final match between Japan and South Korea in the AFC Youth Championship tournament. She was then invited to the East Asian competitions, and the AFC gave her the job of refereeing for the most sensitive competition of 2017, between the women’s teams of North and South Korea.
But in Iran, Ghorbani remains mostly unnoticed and unknown. “Unfortunately I’ve gotten used to being asked why nobody talks about my referee work. No doubt, they pay more attention to men,” she said. “When the [Iranian] football federation views women’s football so differently, I do not expect that any attention would paid to us. I am going to be a referee at the AFC Asian Cup Games. The federation has yet to announce the news and I have no objections. We are used to it.”
Buy Your Own Ticket
Refereeing can at times be a difficult job, and it doesn't matter whether you are a man or a woman. One drawback is the pay. “Being a referee does not make you rich,” Mahsa Ghorbani told IranWire. “I do not even know how much the federation pays for each game. It is so insignificant that I do not check my bank account for it. Last week I was to be the referee for the last game of the women’s league. The federation could not afford to buy me a ticket. They told me to buy it myself and that I will be compensated later, but I am not counting on the money for the ticket until 2019.”
But refereeing is also extremely physically demanding. To keep fit she has to rent a track, which she only has access to between six and eight in the morning. And if she is injured during exercises or competitions, she has to pay her medical bills out of her own pocket.
What sets Ghorbani apart — and is not generally known about her — is that she is the first Iranian woman to referee for a men’s football match. When she was taking AFC referee courses, she received an invite to the Maldives to referee a match between two Maldivian leagues. “I knew that I would not have such a chance in Iran, considering the laws,” she told IranWire. “When they assigned me to be the referee for two men’s leagues I was very excited. I will never forget the looks I got when the game started, but after a few minutes everything returned to normal. Many times, I confronted the players very decisively. Very soon they got it that it was a referee who was blowing the whistle, not a man or a woman.”
Perhaps it was her strong performance at international games as well as her attire that prompted Ali Ahmed Al-Tarifi to offer Iran’s Football Federation his view of her. But when I asked her about it, she was not very interested in talking about it. “The AFC rules do not permit us to talk about officials or observers,” she said. “There is no point in talking about the past. I am looking forward to the AFC Asian Cup, when I have to be at my best.”
After years of the AFC investing in an Iranian woman referee, now a Saudi football official wants to undermine her by talking about what she wears. Despite this talk, Ghorbani is still scheduled to referee for the competition. “My dream is to be a referee at the World Cup,” she said. “At the Asian level, they have some of the best and, perhaps, most political games. Now I have to prove myself. I am the only one at these competitions who has no international experience. I must get from the Asian Cup to Women’s World Cup.”
The facts cannot be denied. Mahsa Ghahremani will be the only Iranian referee at the AFC Asian Cup — whether Iran’s Football Federation wants to acknowledge her or not.