Iran’s premier football league has apparently fallen under the direct supervision of the Intelligence Organization of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the Ministry of Intelligence amid fears of renewed protests across the country.
During the opening week of the tournament, the authorities demolished the infrastructure around the pitch at Tehran’s Azadi Stadium to prevent fans from attending matches in Iran's biggest and most renowned stadium and did not allow spectators into a smaller venue in Tehran’s Ekbatan Town.
Meanwhile, a group of women was carefully selected and dispatched to Sirjan Stadium in the south-eastern province of Kerman to please the Asian Football Confederation (AFC).
The government is concerned that football matches could be used as platforms for anti-establishment protests marking the first anniversary of Mahsa Amini’s death in police custody in mid-September.
Which Slogan Is Causing Concern to the Government?
The non-sports-related slogan "Reza Shah, rest in peace" has repeatedly reverberated across Azadi Stadium and other football venues over the past five years.
On August 9, fans of the Malavan FC football team chanted this slogan as they exited the Tehran stadium after attending a match against Zob Ahan FC.
Kamal Sadat, the director-general of security at the Tehran Governorate, later declared that all football matches at Azadi Stadium would from now be played without spectators “until further notice.”
He cited several reasons for the decision, including a lack of necessary infrastructure.
It's noteworthy that the decision was announced by a high-ranking security official, not by the national football federation or the Ministry of Sports and Youth.
Following this announcement, Iranian football star Ali Karimi wrote on his Instagram page: "No spectators will be allowed into Azadi Stadium until the anniversary of Mahsa Amini's death."
Why Was Azadi Stadium Damaged?
Iran's premier football league concluded in May, and its last official match was played at Azadi Stadium in June for the elimination cup final between Esteghlal FC and Persepolis FC.
A week prior to the start of the new edition of the league, Azadi Stadium underwent destruction that was not disconnected from the government's concerns over the absence of spectators within the stadium.
An informed source within the Ministry of Sports and Youth tells IranWire that the ministry did not consider demolishing Azadi Stadium until just 10 days ago, and this destruction was not proposed by the company responsible for the stadium's maintenance.
In a video, Alireza Beiranvand, Persepolis Fc's goalkeeper, can be heard telling a reporter prior to the team's opening match against Aluminium FC: "They wrecked the stadium in just a week!"
Other videos depicting the destruction of Azadi Stadium show the chaos and lack of direction in dismantling the stadium's platforms, changing rooms for players and referees, as well as the camera platforms for television coverage.
The IranWire source emphasizes that the demolition aimed at ensuring that fans are kept away from the stadium.
Mahyar Asgarian, the head of the company dealing with sports facilities development and equipment, informed journalists that the reconstruction process would span from between 16 to 19 months.
In contrast, the entire Azadi sports complex encompassing a 100,000-seat football arena, two 12,000-seat halls, an artificial lake and cycling tracks was built in less than 14 months.
Construction started in 1970 and all the facilities became operational by the following year.
Two Challenges Posed by Football to the Government: Women and Mahsa Amini
The government has encountered two significant ideological and security challenges in relation to the premier league.
On August 2, the league’s organization and the football federation made the decision to postpone the start of the competition.
The semi-official ISNA news agency and other media outlets reported that the reason behind the move was pressure exerted by the Asian Football Confederation to allow women into stadiums.
At around this same time, the demolition of Tehran's Azadi Stadium kicked off, while ISNA announced that Yadgar Imam Stadium in Tabriz, Naqsh Jahan Stadium in Isfahan, Shohada Foulad Stadium in Ahvaz, Azadi Stadium in Tehran, and Shahid Suleimani Stadium in Sirjan received permissions to accommodate women.
Nevertheless, only one stadium has allowed female attendees, while both men and women were prohibited from attending any matches in Tehran.
Female fans of Sepahan FC were not permitted to enter the stadium on August 10, a day after approximately 150 women were granted entry to Sirjan Stadium. Their presence in the stadium was reported extensively by government-affiliated media.
According to IranWire’s source, the football federation plans to allow small groups of selected female fans into stadiums in the upcoming weeks, and images of these women will be shown to the Asian Football Confederation.
The second challenge concerns security and is primarily linked to fears of renewed protests during the first anniversary of Amini's death.
In recent months, numerous calls have been issued to encourage people to return to the streets next month to participate in protest gatherings.
Recent reports indicate that individuals detained during months-long nationwide protests sparked by Amini’s death have been summoned and required to pledge not to leave their homes on the September 16 anniversary.
Unlike in previous years when the whole schedule of the premier league was released at the outset of the competition, except for the 10 final weeks, the football federation has so far only disclosed the fixtures for the first four weeks of the competition ending on August 31, two weeks before the anniversary of Amini’s death.