On the night of Saturday, February 22, spectators were banned from entering stadiums for selected sporting events, and other matches were suspended until further notice following government concerns of crowds entering Iranian stadiums and potentially exposing more than 150,000 people to coronavirus, or COVID-19.
The recent decision comes in the wake of 19 cases of the virus being reported in Iran, which has been confirmed by the ministry of health. Five have proved to be fatal.
The federation of sports medicine launched a campaign on Saturday morning, entitled "Confronting coronavirus spread in sports."
At its first meeting with representatives from the ministry of sport, the Olympic Committee and several federation managers, set out and announced four strategies to combat coronavirus in Iranian stadiums — solutions that have left some Iranian people feeling outraged, or at least confused.
On Saturday evening, after clubs expressed their concern, sporting officials released a statement, which had a series of implausible clauses that seemed to have been written by committee members without a clear understanding of the best course of action to take. The statement was addressed to fans and included the following guidelines:
Fans are to avoid unnecessary presence in crowded and busy places, keep a one-and-a-half-meter to two-meter distance from other people in crowds and avoid kissing and shaking hands.
Among the more realistic guidelines regarding using disinfectants when at sports premises, cleaning hands and the surface of any equipment used, visiting a doctor in case of fever, sore throat, shortness of breath, or gastrointestinal problems and wearing masks, replacing regularly in accordance with instructions issued to people suffering from infectious illnesses or for their carers.
But these clauses need further scrutiny.
Authorities have emphasized the importance of avoiding crowded and busy places. How are spectators of big sports events such as football, basketball, taekwondo, and wrestling expected to avoid busy areas?
People have been instructed to wash their hands repeatedly with soap, water, and disinfectant. At Azadi Stadium, spectators have no soap or disinfectant available to them, nor do stadiums or gymnasiums in Iran provide disinfectants or hand sanitizing liquid. Additionally, few Iranian stadiums even have toilets.
The fourth paragraph of the directive refers to a two-meter distance to be observed in stadiums. In the game between Sepahan and Persepolis or Esteghlal and Zob-e Ahan, how are spectators expected to sit two meters apart in the stadiums?
In reality, the recent statement to counter the spread of coronavirus in sports environments is like a bitter joke. Then, in a statement released at 11:18 pm Tehran time on Saturday, February 22, the Iranian football league announced that "all professional football matches in Iran will be held without the presence of spectators until further notice."
Siamak Qelichkhani, head of public relations at Sepahan Club, spoke out against the guidelines released by the federation of sports medicine. He initially said that the stadium doors would be open to fans and that no one had the right to bar people from attending. In another interview on Sunday, February 23, he claimed that the Sepahan club would either play in the stadium with their fans present, or the match would be canceled.
Despite the release of the guidelines, neither the Iranian football league or the Iranian football association released a statement or appeared to have come to a final decision.
"At around 19:00, we were expecting the match to either be canceled or for an order to be issued for the gates to be closed," a source at the football federation told IranWire.
"We then contacted the club managers and advised they play the match with no spectators or to cancel the match altogether."
This begs the question: where did the original order come from?
It is suspected that the order comes from higher up than the sports medicine federation and is clearly not in line with the decisions taken by Iranian sports managers.
Another statement issued by the sports medicine federation on Sunday, February 23 at 9.30pm said: "Following coordination with the Ministry of Sport and Youth and with regard to the importance of maintaining the health of athletes and sports enthusiasts, as well as those interested in and attending sporting events, from Monday, February 24, all national sports competitions and the first and second groups in the leagues in all age groups will be canceled for 10 days."
Hours later, authorities announced all of the country’s premier league, second league, and all neighborhood matches would be held on Sunday without spectators. All six of the premier league clubs were informed of the decision just one hour ahead of the announcement.
The official release said, “The subsequent decisions of the headquarters will be followed by further announcements." But why were the Sunday competitions not canceled?
The buses that transport football teams from hotels to competitions are leased from either Vahed Buses or intercity transport systems. On Sunday, February 23, Zob-e Ahan team players traveled to Azadi Stadium by bus, which had been used by public passengers the day before.
If one of the 22 team members is infected by coronavirus, he will infect the whole team. The changing rooms, cloakrooms and restrooms in the stadiums could also infected with the virus.
Authorities have not been thorough in their methods of informing the public. The league announced the ban on spectators entering the stadium at 23.18 on Saturday. By this time, most fans traveling from the cities of Qom, Kashan, Hamedan, Fars, Markazi, Tehran, and Alborz will likely have left to travel to Isfahan for the next day’s match. More than likely, most of them would have missed the announcement and gone to the stadium.
According to the new decision, men and women's futsal matches, women's football, leagues one and two men's football, and beach football matches will all be canceled.
But if authorities were serious about preventing the virus from spreading, why didn’t the Persian Gulf Pro League or the Iranian Football Federation announce cancelations and changes on Saturday morning, providing adequate time for the message to be disseminated to the 10,000 travelers bound for Isfahan for the match between Persepolis and Sepahan?