On Sunday, May 15, the Iran Football League Organization announced that matches across the country would be held behind closed doors, without spectators, for the foreseeable future. The official reason given by president Heydar Baharvand was the Interior Ministry had flagged up a widespread failure to follow Covid-19 rules at sports venues.
Pro League matches are set to continue for another three weeks; the Azadegan League has five left to go. Coming as it did at a time when new infections are comparatively low across Iran, there is speculation that the directive had another purpose.
Is Covid the Only Reason for Keeping Spectators Out?
The day before the League Organization shut the stadium doors, the security division of the Ministry of Sports had announced that on the direct orders of the National Coronavirus Taskforce, there would be no more paper tickets to competitions sold.
The Taskforce has wavered for months on end – and through an entire sixth wave of the epidemic in Iran – over what to do about fans’ access to sports venues. In December 2021 an existing ban was extended even as movie theaters, offices and public pools were able to reopen.
A month later on January 29, after some 15,000 spectators had been allowed into Azadi Stadium to watch Iran’s World Cup qualifying match against Iraq, the doors were closed again. On the Taskforce’s instructions, Iran played the UAE without an audience.
Up until now, the Taskforce has assumed responsibility for all Covid-related decisions governing stadia. But on Sunday Baharvand made no mention of the Taskforce, instead citing - for the first time - the Interior Ministry.
Some Iranian football club bosses smell a rat. Izad Seifollahpour, CEO of Mazandaran Nassaji FC, has already broken rank to claim Covid is just an excuse to keep barring women from entering stadiums, under FIFA’s watchful eye.
There is, however, a second theory.
Protests and Football Events
In late 2017, after protests erupted in several cities in Iran, the security division of the Ministry of Sports ordered all Iranian sports federations to cancel any upcoming contests, or at the very least, to delay them or drastically change the time and location. The order was enforced more strictly in northern Iranian cities and the border provinces.
During both the subsequent protests in 2018 and early on in November 2019, people held anti-government rallies outside Azadi Stadium in Tehran and Yadegar Stadium in Tabriz. So two years later on November 17, 2019, the same directive was issued again. After nationwide protests broke out over a three-fold hike in gas prices, the Ministry of Sports sent an urgent, confidential letter to sports federations, telling them to cancel all competitions in the cities where protests were taking place.
On November 19 of the same year, the National Security Council went even further, directly informing football clubs across Iran that in certain cities, no competitions would be taking place until further notice.
The Sports Ministry’s internal guidelines dictate that provincial security councils up and down the country are responsible for coordinating sports competitions. They set the time, the place, the venue, the safety arrangements in place, and even what medical services are on hand. One tier up, the Supreme National Security Council can also cancel sports events under certain conditions, as it did with many basketball, volleyball and football matches in November 2019. Contests in other disciplines such as taekwondo and wrestling were held without spectators.
At the time, there was no pandemic to deploy as an excuse for the closure of events during periods of unrest. It would not be far-fetched at all to assume that is what’s happening now, as fresh anti-government protests gather momentum in cities across Iran.