On Friday, November 19, for the first time in 634 days, the doors of Azadi football stadium will be open to fans.
Spectators have not been allowed to watch football matches in stadiums since February 23, 2020, when Iranian officials formally recognized that coronavirus was beginning to spread throughout Iran. When matches finally resumed, games were held without any spectators.
But finally, the Iranian Premier League and the Football Federation have announced that fans will be able to watch the match between Esteghlal and Nasaji in Azadi stadium on a trial basis.
However, there has been no announcement about the main other issue that has long dominated Iranian sports: women spectators. After a long, protracted series of denials, refusals, agreements and clashes, is Iranian football once again preparing to do battle with FIFA? The international football body has repeatedly insisted that Iran will not be able to take part in international competitions if it does not allow women fans into stadiums, and Azadi has been the focal point of and symbol for the issue.
On 7 September 2021, after the match between the national teams of Iran and Iraq ended, FIFA president Gianni Infantino met with Shahaboddin Azizi Khadem, president of the Iranian Football Federation, and requested that he make it possible for women to attend the Iran-South Korea match in Tehran on October 20 at Azadi stadium.
On October 10, the Iranian Football Federation made an official announcement: the Iran-South Korea match would be held without spectators. It did not provide a reason for the decision, though if pushed, officials may well have cited high coronavirus cases.
However, the Minister of Sports and Youth, Hamid Sajjadi, did comment. He said that the reason was that the Asian Football Confederation was opposed to spectators being present at the game.
Later, Iranian Football Federation General Secretary Hassan Kamranifar told Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting: "It is not related to FIFA and the Asian Football Confederation. The directors of the football federation have come to the conclusion that the game should be without spectators.”
Among those who were furious with the decision was political activist Faezeh Hashemi, the daughter of former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. "Iran is lying to you,” she told FIFA. “They do not want women to enter the stadium.”
For the last four weeks, all matches have been closed to fans.
Back in 2019, IranWire contacted FIFA about the Iranian Football Federation’s repeated refusal to allow women into stadiums. The international federation came back on October 14, 2019 with a clear response: "FIFA's position on women's access to Iranian stadiums is quite clear: all women must be allowed in football stadiums in Iran, for all football matches.”
If Iran continues to ban women from stadiums, FIFA could respond by imposing a fine. But it could also suspend the federation.
Who’s Making the Decisions?
In September 2019, Sahar Khodayari, known as the "Blue Girl", set herself on fire and died after a legal case was brought against her because of her protests in support of women being allowed into stadiums. Soon after this came FIFA’s ultimatum for the Iranian Football Federation: women must be allowed to enter stadiums or Iran wold not be able to participate in global competitions.
But it’s important to remember who is actually making these decisions. It’s not the football federation. Extremists such as Hossein Jalali, a member of the Iranian parliament's Cultural Committee, rely on the Supreme Leader's fatwa. For them, women entering stadiums is strictly illegal.
In 2003, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who had previously declared it disgusting for women to watch men's wrestling competitions, was asked directly whether women should be allowed to watch football in stadiums. Like FIFA, the Supreme Leader was clear: "This is forbidden and it is a violation if they disobey it.”
However, the president of the football federation claimed that in 2018, Hassan Rouhani, then president of Iran, promised to allow women into stadiums.
Football clubs don’t have the authority to make these decisions either. Esteghlal head coach Farhad Majidi had previously explicitly supported women attending stadiums. However, Esteghlal’s director is one of the most extremist personalities in the history of Iranian sports, Mostafa Ajorlou, so even if he were able to decide, he would naturally follow the Supreme Leader.
Back to Where we Started?
Now the football federation apparently wants to test FIFA’s reaction with what it calls a pilot project.
Varzesh Seh, a media outlet with close links to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and security agencies, reported that the Ministry of Interior had said spectators would be allowed to watch the Premier League game between Esteghlal and Nasaji live in Azadi Stadium.
And yet many fans have not been able to buy tickets prior to the match, a situation that reminded many of incidents in 2018 and 2019, when police physically attacked people who arrived at the stadium hoping to buy tickets. Only those who had bought tickets online were allowed in and those who arrived without tickets were banned them entering the stadium.
Esteghlal fans reported that they were unable to buy tickets online until the last hours of Thursday, November 18. Esteghlal Club issued a statement that read: "According to the arrangements made, tickets for the match with Nasaji can be purchased in cash or by credit card at ticket sales points at Azadi Stadium.”
As the match looms, fans everywhere wait and watch. Will women be allowed in? Will the Ministry of Interior and the police try the old trick of allowing a select list of women into Azadi to make it look as if FIFA’s demands are being met? Whatever happens, given the history of this battle, FIFA is unlikely to be fooled. How it responds remains to be seen.