Tuesday, March 29 might yet be a watershed moment in the history of Iranian football under the Islamic Republic - if the International Football Federation (FIFA) chooses to make it so.
News that Iranian women were blocked from attending a World Cup qualifying match in the city of Mashhad, and that security guards attacked them with pepper spray and teargas at the gates, spread like wildfire yesterday. The story was covered extensively by the media outlets around the world, including, among others, AP, Yahoo News, the Indiana Express, The Gazette, Sports Net, ABC News and the Washington Post.
Yesterday’s match, in which Team Melli beat Lebanon 2-0 having already secured a place at the Qatar World Cup back in January, was supposed to be the Iranian Football Federation’s last chance to redeem itself after repeated warnings by FIFA and the AFC that women must be allowed onto the stands.
State security forces attacked the women yesterday in Mashhad, with pepper spray to disperse the crowds & prevent them from entering a stadium during a soccer match between #Iran & Lebanon national soccer teams.#HumanRights pic.twitter.com/ClcBU91xlw— IRAN HRM (@IranHrm) March 30, 2022
This did not happen. In the aftermath of yesterday's events, ISNA news agency reported that 12,500 tickets for the game at Imam Reza Stadium had been sold online, of which 2,000 had been reserved for women - but not honored at the gates. ISNA also carried a rebuke from the nationwide Sports Ethics Committee, which castigated a “weakness in placing spectators” and “lack of necessary coordination for women".
The outcome, the committee said, constituted "mistreatment of fans as members of the wider sports family… It is expected that the Football Federation apologize to dear spectators, who are the main asset of Iranian sports, respect values that are accepted by society, and take measures to prevent similar incidents.”
Squirming by Iranian Football Bosses
So far, the Federation's official response has been to blame the last-minute nature of ticket sales and "fake tickets". In a long-winded statement on Wednesday, the Federation claimed that up until three days earlier the match had been due to run without spectators, making it harder to provide "favorable conditions" for women to enter. Accordingly, it said, officials had not "invited" women to buy tickets in the first place.
The Federation further claimed that just nine women were bona fide ticket-holders and would be refunded. The violence the rest had suffered, it said, was "the result of mischief and profiteering by people who endangered the order and security of the stadium by selling and printing fake tickets".
But behind the scenes, individual members of the Iranian Football Federation are clearly worried, and had a different appraisal of why the day's events came about. Mehrdad Seraji, an influential board member, tweeted: “We are hearing worrisome news about decisions by FIFA and Asian Football Confederation. As I emphasized earlier, those in the Ministry of Sports, who set the directions for the Football Federation that led to the painful events in Mashhad, must now be held accountable.”
FIFA Rules Leave No Room for Uncertainty
In light of the latest incident, and after the mid-March Tehran Derby between Persepolis FC and Esteghlal FCs took place at Azadi Stadium without a single woman among the 35,000 spectators, speculation is now again rife over whether or not FIFA will finally enforceits own rules.
In summer 2019, FIFA notified the Iranian Football Federation of two key points on its newly-altered disciplinary code: first, the need to make changes to its charter, and second, in effect, that female spectators had to be allowed into matches.
Provision 13 of the code allows for any member who “offends the dignity” of a person or group of people on account of characteristics such as race, gender or religion to be punished “with a suspension lasting at least ten matches, a specific period, or any other appropriate disciplinary measure.” FIFA later confirmed to IranWire in September 2019 that its position vis-à-vis Iran was clear: “All women must be allowed into football stadiums in Iran, for all football matches.”
How Much Bad Press Does it Take?
Among the sanctions the global footballing body could impose is the extreme “expulsion from a competition in progress or from future competitions” – ie, the World Cup – or as little as a fine of 100 to 1,000,000 Swiss francs (US$108 to $108m).
It may yet, of course, do nothing at all. FIFA has been repeatedly criticized for enabling the Iranian Federation’s, and by extension the Iranian Ministry of Sports’, discrimination against women by not intervening in any concrete way – not after the Tehran Derby, nor any other time, save once in late 2019.
That September a young woman called Sahar Khodayari, known as the “Blue Girl”, had set herself on fire outside a courthouse after being blocked from entering Azadi Stadium, then prosecuted and sentenced to jail time for the “crime” of simply having tried to watch a football game.
The story was carried by news outlets around the world and after Khodayari died in hospital, fans of Germany’s Werder Bremen sports club carried banners into a domestic stadium that read: “No to the Gender Ban in Stadiums”, “Being a Fan is a Human Right” and “In Memory of Sahar Khodayari”.
The international furore around Khodayari’s death prompted FIFA to write to Iranian sports officials several times, insisting women be allowed to take their place on the stands. That October the Federation briefly capitulated, letting female fans watch the Iran v Cambodia game at home. But within months the gates were closed again, and aside from a tokenistic scattering of hand-chosen individuals, Iranian women have remained locked out of matches ever since.
This time, however, an English-language international newswire picked up the incident early on, leading to it being covered by dozens of large media outlets throughout Tuesday and Wednesday. It remains to be seen if outrage over the latest assault on Iranian female fans will be enough for FIFA to move, as some Federation bosses clearly expect it will.