Iran’s National Coronavirus Taskforce has agreed to let spectators into Tehran’s Azadi Stadium for the next 2022 World Cup qualifier. The Iranian national team will face Iraq and the UAE on January 27 and February 1 respectively, and only needs one more victory to secure itself a place in Qatar.
Iranian government spokesman Ali Bahadori-Jahromi has said there will be a cap on spectator numbers – so far undecided – and fans would be required to “observe health protocols”. The Ministry of Sports and Youth is responsible for ensuring the guidance is followed.
Notably Ansieh Khazali, vice-president for women and family affairs, has also said that women will be allowed to be present at the Iran-Iraq game: with the emphasis on “at this game”.
Why This Game?
In October 2019, Amir Mehdi Alavi, then-head of PR of the Iranian Football Federation, told Fars News Agency that the country’s football bosses had come to an agreement with FIFA that would allow Iranian women to attend national football games only. He further claimed that FIFA representatives, who had come to Tehran to monitor women’s access to an Iran-Cambodia game, had told them: "Our area of authority is national games and we respect the laws of the country in the Pro League."
Massoud Soltanifar, the then-Minister of Sports and Youth, had meanwhile pronounced women's attendance of club-level games "impossible". He added: "Currently, women can attend the stadium for national games. Stadiums are not cinemas or concert halls... The atmosphere [at club matches] is not suitable for women.”
The Iran-Iraq match could be one of the most-watched of the qualifiers so far. Having women at this game in particular – even if no others – is a propaganda opportunity.
Was There Ever a ‘National Matches-Only’ Agreement?
A spokesperson for FIFA told IranWire its position was clear: “All women must be allowed into football stadiums in Iran, for all football matches.”
In fact, FIFA president Gianni Infantino had said as much after the Iran-Cambodia match: “History teaches us that progress comes in stages and this is just the beginning of a journey. Consequently, FIFA now looks more than ever towards a future when ALL girls and women wishing to attend football matches in IR Iran will be free to do so, and in a safe environment.”
Following that visit, the Iranian Football Federation had asked FIFA for some time to create “the conditions” for women to enter stadia in the country. Then in March 2020 the doors closed due to coronavirus. They emain closed to half the Iranian population – apart from a handful of token guests for the benefit of state media. Two Pro League seasons have since come and gone.
What’s at Stake?
If women are not allowed to attend league games as well as national matches, FIFA has the option to suspend Iran. Paragraph 4 of its charter warns that countries that engage repeatedly in gender discrimination can be punished first with suspension, and if it continues, with expulsion.
This could mean that regardless of the outcome of the two qualifiers in Tehran, the team may end up missing the World Cup. Permitting women to attend the Iraq game is just the latest in a very long series of attempts to placate the world football body on a temporary basis.
If the ban on women entering stadiums continues, it will be as visible to FIFA as it is to the fans themselves. In the past FIFA has been alerted to supposed “faults” on ticketing websites blocking women from buying tickets, most recently in two Iran Pro League games – Estaghlal v Nasaji, then Persepolis v Sanat-e Naft – so this is also a ploy unlikely to work again. The stage is set for Iran’s suspension if the Ministry of Sports does not pull Iranian football out of the current, regressive situation, on a permanent basis.