"FIFA insists the match between the Iranian national football team and Iraq at Azadi Stadium, which could become a celebration of [Iran] reaching the World Cup, be attended by both men and women."
So writes the Iranian state-controlled ISNA news agency of a forthcoming 2022 Qatar World Cup qualifying match set to be hosted by Iran on January 27 next year. Whether or not ISNA’s editors intended to mislead is unclear: in all its dealings with Iran over the years, FIFA has never “insisted” on anything, but enforced the same internal rules that Iran is signed up to.
Two years ago, IranWire put a simple question to the global football body: did Iranian women only have to be present at national and international games to comply with FIFA’s rules? In a lengthy response, FIFA replied: "FIFA's position on women's access to Iranian stadiums is clear: all women must be allowed into football stadiums in Iran, for all football matches."
In recent days Gholamreza Rafiei, the Iranian Football Federation's top legal adviser, has claimed that FIFA has been repeatedly “asking” Iran to give clarity on this specific issue. "Currently,” Rafiei said, “two important issues are being pursued by FIFA, which were emphasized at a recent meeting with the FIFA president and senior managers: the Federation’s statute, and the entry of women into stadiums, even in domestic league matches.”
He went on: “On the first issue, FIFA says the name of the football federation should be removed from the list of public NGOs. On the second issue, FIFA has stated in writing to the federation that women should be allowed to enter stadiums to watch football matches – even domestic league matches. At the meeting we had with the FIFA president and senior executives last week, this was reaffirmed by the FIFA president."
A December 6 report by Shargh newspaper indicates FIFA’s original deadline on this matter has already passed. At a meeting in December 2019, according to Shargh, both the president of the Iranian Football Federation and the then-deputy minister of sports agreed to the following terms: “Women will be allowed to participate in the Iranian national team’s match against Hong Kong on March 26, 2020 at Azadi Stadium, with a significant increase in the number of seats available for women compared to the October 10, 2019 competition. Women will be allowed to participate in all upcoming AFC Champions League matches in Iran. Women will be allowed to participate in all national games and Persian Gulf League games from June 2020."
None of these promises materialized despite repeated warnings and petitions from FIFA, some of which were published in Iranian media. With correspondence clearly having broken down, FIFA president Gianni Infantino has now said he will come to Tehran to watch the Iran-Iraq match at the end of next month. He had been invited to the Iran-South Korea match at Azadi Stadium this October, but the event ended up going ahead without spectators.
This will be Gianni Infantino's third trip to Iran, having previously come to the Tehran Derby and an AFC Champions League final. In March 2018, this appeared to bear fruit after Infantino secured a verbal commitment from then-President Hassan Rouhani that women would be given access to football stadiums. Twelve months later a young Esteghlal fan, Sahar Khodayari, was arrested and prosecuted for trying to go into Azadi Stadium. She set herself on fire outside the courthouse and died of her injuries in hospital.
January 27, 2022 is the date now posited as Iran's very last chance. The Islamic Republic and the Football Federation might well put another empty stadium in front of Gianni Infantino on the pretext of coronavirus. If male fans are seen entering the stadium without women, surely the time will have come for Iranian football to be suspended.