She sits in the back seat of a car driving at high speed on one of Isfahan's highways. Due to a technical defect, the car suddenly deviates from its course, hits the wall of the highway, tumbles and rolls for more than 150 meters. Three of her vertebrae are broken and part of her spine is severely damaged.
This is the story of Raha Shams, or part of it. She is now a referee in Italian league futsal.
"I have been playing futsal since I was a teenager. When I was a student, I continued playing football; it was part of my daily life. I remember student tournaments in Isfahan. After the last game, when we were supposed to go to the national competitions, we had to travel a long distance by road. It was the Ramadan Cup [named after the Muslim month of fasting] games and the matches lasted until midnight because they could not begin until an hour after dusk. That night something happened in my life. All I can remember is that I was sitting in the back seat. The car suddenly tumbled and was swinging in the air. Five vertebrae in my back broke. Two vertebrae in my neck were also crushed. That night, I was at the highest level of football in my life. I was supposed to participate in national competitions and then study to become a referee. But when I got to the hospital, the first thing I heard from the doctor was that I had a spinal cord injury. I called my father and cried. My parents came, hired a private ambulance and took me to another hospital. This was not the whole tragedy. It was five days before I was operated on. That was the year that President Ahmadinejad ordered a five-day holiday for [the holy day] Eid al-Fitr. The doctor said that, due to the holidays, there was no place to buy platinum, so I should wait. They said if I had not been an athlete I would either have died or been paralyzed."
This is a slice of Raha Shams's life; a girl born in Isfahan in April 1990 who received a Bachelor's degree in accounting and studied, worked, and was a football player in her hometown.
Shams’s interests differed from those of her other family members: "When the TV was turned on to watch football, I was looking for the referee. I loved football because of its referees. It was strange for everyone, but I became a footballer because I could not go to refereeing school as a girl in Iran at that time."
Raha Shams was hospitalized for two months after the operation and then had to recuperate for six months at home. She walked with a stick and began a course of physiotherapy to regain her ability to walk.
"The only thing I could do in those days was to be the leader of the Ayandeh-Sazan team,” she told IranWire.
The Ayandeh-Sazan team was part of the Iranian Girls' Football League, but it went to the brink of liquidation. The Sepahan Isfahan Club bought the team's permit and kept it in the Women's Premier League. Raha Shams became the head of the Isfahan Ayandeh-Sazan girls' football team for three years.
"I was really annoyed, but I resisted. We had a good team. We were always at the top of the table fighting for the championship or the runner-up position. But when I saw the players or the referees, I suffered. I was saying to myself, 'Does just one accident have to change a person's life so much?'
But Shams’s life changed again with a simple meeting, a question and an answer, and a sudden decision. "I met the sister of one of the [Ayandeh-Sazan] teammates, who was studying in Italy. I asked her about life and studying in Italy and she gave me excellent advice. I resigned [from the team] and stayed at home for a year to study Italian. Then I applied to enter university and, after two exams, I was accepted.”
Raha Shams went to Italy to study, continued her physiotherapy, and was later drawn back to refereeing despite her injury and the difficulties she faced.
Shams learned to walk again, but could not run. She was short of breath when she walked fast. "My coach said after a few sessions, 'You can easily get back to normal life.' It didn't take me long to run again. In 2018, I decided to attend refereeing classes. It may sound strange, but no one encouraged me when I told them my decision. Everyone scared me. They said I couldn’t do it and that my back had still problems, and the refereeing tests at the European Football Center were not easy to pass. But I went,” she said.
After three months in the refereeing classes of the Italian Football Federation, Shams passed the theoretical and practical exams with a perfect score. "I am happy to say that since February 2018, I have officially been a referee for Italian football.”
The Italian Football Federation has strict rules for the promotion of referees. All referees must first work at the juvenile level. After two months, and if they get the necessary experience, they will be selected for the under-15 competitions and after another two months for the under-17 competitions. "They did not wait in my case,” she said. “After a few games, I was promoted. They said my work was good and I did not need to go through this process.
“Until one day they called me and said, 'Unfortunately, we have to say there is a big problem with you.'"
According to the rules of arbitration, only referees who are under the age of 23 are allowed to participate in the professional youth refereeing category: "The chairman of the Italian refereeing committee saw me and said that you have no chance as a middle-rank referee. You are not old enough to go above this. He said it was a pity … So he suggested that I try my luck as an assistant referee. It was hard, but I accepted. I was immediately sent to national competitions; it was a dream. After three games, they wrote saying that I could be one of the referees for the Juventus Under-19 team. It was wonderful."
Now a person was waving a flag for the youth team of Juventus; a person who, a few years ago, doctors had said she could barely move her legs.
To overcome the obstacles in front of her, Shams checked even the most difficult options among her choices: "I was settling in as an assistant referee. But one day the president of the Italian Football Federation asked me to think about refereeing in futsal. It was hard, very hard to leave football. But I think his words were wise. He said the age limit for entering the professional futsal refereeing class is 35. He said I would have room to progress if I go to futsal. He touched my weak point; I was thirsty for progress. I was both a football assistant and a futsal referee for a year, but after a year I promised to work only as a futsal referee."
Raha Shams is now a professional referee of Italian futsal. Before the coronavirus outbreak, she blew the whistle in the Italian Futsal Series C competitions, and if the leagues had not been closed due to the outbreak, she would probably be one step closer to Serie A competitions: "Except for Serie A, all categories are closed. We have to wait until the end of the pandemic."
Nothing was ever simple. The young woman who went to Italy without even a moment of refereeing experience in Iran, and thought that she could not even run after a ball, did not achieve these accomplishments with ease. From overcoming back pain to imposing her self-belief on others, it was a test.
"Italians do not just like football,” Shams told IranWire. “They love and are crazy about football. When you are the referee and you whistle against their will, no one and nothing can stop them from attacking you. In those early days, when I had to arbitrate young boys' games, I understood hardship in the true sense of the word. I was a foreign woman, in front of a handful of young, motivated, inexperienced and rebellious players. They were not the only ones. When I whistled, the spectators, the team leader, the coaches and the players all piled on to me. It happened many times that ten people attacked me for a whistle and shouted, ‘Go away, foreigner. What do you understand about football?' The same men came at the end of the game, apologizing, congratulating and claiming that they could not believe that a foreign woman could understand anything about football."
I ask Raha Shams how much difference there was between what she sees in Italian football and what she experienced as a player and later as the head of a women's team in Iran.
”The difference?” she asked. “Do you really want me to talk about differences? The difference is so great that it cannot be described. … We whistle the end the game here, we have not even arrived home yet, and our salaries are deposited. Coronavirus came, we did not work, but the Italian federation pays our salaries without delay. They give us weekly online classes. We have to test [for the virus] every month. What difference shall I speak of? From the nights we slept in the prayer halls and basements of schools and camps to be able to play in the Iran League? Because when the team lost, the club managers did not even pay for the kids' lunches, and we paid for it out of our own pockets? The differences are indescribable."
Raha Shams also talked about a social difference in Iran. Like any woman in Iran, she may have experienced discrimination, but her approach to managers is different: "I have been thanking the authorities for a lifetime. I just thanked everyone. I mean, that was basically my job. When I was in charge of Ayandeh-Sazan for three years, I just had to say sorry, thank you, I'm sorry, you're right. But here I saw another world. The first day I went to the Italian Federation to register for refereeing classes, a well-mannered man came to me and brought me a cup of coffee. He joked a little and we laughed. He was a very dignified and distinguished man. He said: why do you want to start refereeing? And I answered. Then I asked if I could meet with the chairman of the refereeing committee. He said yes! Well, now you are talking to the chairman of the committee. Why, really, do we say thank you for everything in Iran? I used to behave the same way when I came here. I have been told several times that what we are doing for you is our duty. Why are you so grateful?"
Shams is now a professional Iranian female referee in Italian football and futsal. But does she still think about Iran? "It is very interesting to me that no one ever contacted me, not even once, from the Iranian federation. Nobody said come and tell us what happened when you left. What made you start refereeing? What is going on there? Never, no one."
Raha Shams also has an international degree in diving, and before the outbreak of the coronavirus in Italy, besides studying and refereeing, one of her jobs was as a lifeguard. She says that if it were not for her mother's support and encouragement during her most difficult days, she might never have reached this point in her life.