Sports

"We Can't Play in Iran": Two Young Women Pursuing Football Careers in Turkey

May 4, 2022
Samaneh Ghadarkhan
4 min read
Elna Sharifat (right), her brother and coach Hamid Reza Sharifat, and Setareh Ghahremani
Elna Sharifat (right), her brother and coach Hamid Reza Sharifat, and Setareh Ghahremani
Setareh, 20, has received offers from Turkish clubs in Izmir and Istanbul
Setareh, 20, has received offers from Turkish clubs in Izmir and Istanbul
Because of her skin condition she cannot play in hijab, effectively locking her out of competitions in Iran
Because of her skin condition she cannot play in hijab, effectively locking her out of competitions in Iran
Before her eczema developed Setareh used to play for the Iranian national women's team
Before her eczema developed Setareh used to play for the Iranian national women's team
Today, she is free to practise in Turkey without a headscarf, for as long as the tourist visa lasts
Today, she is free to practise in Turkey without a headscarf, for as long as the tourist visa lasts
Elna Sharifat is also based in the Turkish city of Denizli and wants to go to Europe next
Elna Sharifat is also based in the Turkish city of Denizli and wants to go to Europe next
"Female footballers have no chance of getting ahead in Iran; women’s football is considered unimportant there."
"Female footballers have no chance of getting ahead in Iran; women’s football is considered unimportant there."

In the Turkish city of Denizli, some 3,000km away from home, two Iranian girls are forging a future for themselves on the football pitch. Elna Sharifat, 13, and Setareh Ghahremani, 20, were brought to the country by Elna's brother, a coach who saw their talents and knew instinctively there would be little hope of nurturing them in Iran. This is their story.

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It's too soon to tell, but 13-year-old Elna Sharifat might have to change her nationality in order to pursue the sport she loves. She is not allowed to compete in Iran, but has already received a serious offer from Turkey, where she and her peer Setareh are currently staying on a one-year tourist visa. But for them, it's no holiday.

In recent years the Iranian government has drastically cut down the money it spends on women’s sports. Referees have gone unpaid for years at a time. Women have to wear restrictive clothing and carry themselves "modestly", and are accompanied abroad by intelligence agents. They can't have male spectators at their matches, not even fathers and brothers, and in most cases can't be trained by a male coach.

A Turkish football academy already has told Hamid Reza Sharifat that if his younger Elna takes up Turkish citizenship, she can join the women's national team. Hamid Reza is holding out for now, hoping instead to bring his two young charges to a country in the European Union.

“I've been playing football to a professional standard for six years,” Elna told IranWire. “We moved to Turkey to realize our dreams. Female footballers have no chance of getting ahead in Iran; women’s football is considered unimportant there. There are no professional female coaches."

Under-13s in Iran are also not allowed a contract with any team and can only play for football clubs. Her hope, one day, is to join a team in France or Belgium. 

 

"We Can't Go Back"

Setareh is a slender young woman of 20 with curly hair. Dressed in sky-blue kit and now blissfully free of hijab, she can kick the ball around in Denizli without having to worry about her skin condition. She suffers from eczema, and her doctor in Iran told her she could end up with serious skin problems if she played in a headscarf due to the perspiration. As such, she said, "There's no way I can continue playing football in Iran."

Her other reason that women have no chance to progress as footballers in Iran. They aren't even allowed to rent pitches to practice in without the assent of the local authority. “What makes it even more difficult is the lack of financial support for female footballers,” she said.

Setareh has not heard from the Turkish national team, but has received various offers from teams in Izmir and Istanbul, as Elna also has. If they decide to stay and play for one of them, the team would arrange their residency permits on their behalf. The women's team in Denizli has also expressed an interest. 

For her part, Setareh has no intention of returning to Iran. “Since we are now playing without hijab in Turkey we can no longer play in Iran. And if we play here professionally, we'll no longer be invited onto the Iranian national team."

 

Elna and Setareh in Iran

Back home in Iran, Hamid Reza Sharifat coached under-18s football teams and witnessed firsthand Elna and Setareh’s talent in action. To give them with a chance, he took the decision to take them first to Turkey and then, hopefully, on to an EU nation. He is now focused on securing financial support for the second leg of the trip. 

“In Iran," he said, "I coached Elna and Setareh in the park, and this was as much as I could do for them." He added that Elna, who has trained from childhood, is exceptionally talented and it would be a pity if she does not secure the bright future she deserves. Neither of the young women's families are in a position to offer them much support, so they are now seeking a sponsor.

“The biggest difference between women’s football in Iran and Turkey," Hamid Reza said, "is the freedom that Turkey gives to women. Iran does not have a football league for girls under 15 and Elna could not play for any team.

"Plus, cronyism and bribery are rampant in Iranian football and this prevents progress for everybody. In Turkey I came to know a few good coaches who now work with Setareh and Elna. Unlike in Iran, in Turkey the contracts are based on the players' abilities; in Iran, they tell the coach the he must pay a hefty bribe before they sign a contract. In Iran, everything comes down to money.”

Setareh now expects to play in the Turkish women's football league for the next two years. After that she wants to try for a European team. Her long-term wish is to play for England. Both she and Elna are practising for hours every day to equip themselves for the brighter future they deserve.

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