Iran In World Football
In the FIFA World Cup 2014 in Brazil, quite a number of states had qualified for the most popular international mega event. One of the countries which had entered the World Cup was Iran, which is currently in the focus of international community’s attention because of the talks on their nuclear programme.
Iran is also in the news, for their “Hijabi Footballers!”
Iran has appeared in the FIFA World Cup on four occasions: in 1978, 1998, 2006 and 2014. And they are yet to make it out of the group stages. Iran’s 2014 Head coach Carlos Queiroz, formerly of Manchester United, Real Madrid, managed his adoptive Portugal in the previous World Cup, but his defensive, counter-attacking system failed to work and his side failed to score in three out of the four games played.
World Cup qualification came fairly easily with Iran winning the Asia Football Confederation Group A.Qualification was secured in June 2013. Iran beat Korea in Ulsan. The 1-0 triumph prompted wild celebrations. Still, the team reached Brazil as rank outsiders.
In 2014, they returned to the World Cup following an eight-year absence, having missed out on Germany 2006.In fact , they have impress internationally much, since their maiden qualification 37 years ago. Still. With the current ranking of 43th position in the FIFA World Ranking (which was earlier 49), Iran is doubtless a major soccer force in Asia.
Group F of the 2014 FIFA World Cup consisted of Argentina, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Iran and Nigeria. Play began on 15 June and ended on 25 June 2014.
Iran played well against Argentina in the World Cup in 2014. Iran was defending well all along. But a little magic from Lionel Messi dashed Iran’s hope.
The Azadi Stadium, with the capacity of 100.000 people, is the fourth biggest stadium in the world and the first in the Middle East.
The Journey of Football in Iran
Iran’s National Sport is wrestling.
But, despite the big popularity of wrestling, since the Islamic Republic has always persisted to keep global culture at bay, the widespread popularity of football in Iran is somehow surprising.
During the Royal era, the Europeans of the teaching staff made their Iranian student exercise regularly and in 1919 the then Minister of Education, Nasir al-Mulk made Physical Education a part of the curriculum in Iranian schools.
Football was brought to Iran through the then Missionary Schools, the Oil industry and the Army. In British run Missionary Schools, games, including football, were part of the curriculum. Though Missionary Schools were accessible to the sons of the elite class only, the working class became familiar with the game through the British employees of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company.
These young Iranian took football with much enthusiasm, it has some reservations too. Wearing shorts were against the Sharia dictated traditional dress codes.
Gradually all over Iran, Football was introduced by the British officers of the ‘South Persia Rifles’, which then spread to the Iranian Army and gradually among the general population.
In the year 1920, a number of Iranian and British Football enthusiasts established the ‘Iranian Football Association’ and later in 1925, when Shah Reza Khan became the Shah of the Imperial State of Iran, became its Honorary President.
Constitutional Monarchy established by him lasted until 1979 before the Islamic Revolution.
The ‘National Association for Physical Education’, was formed in 1934 under the patronage of the then Crown Prince and State sponsorship.
In 1945, the ‘National Football Federation’ was formed and it soon became a member of FIFA. In the 1960s Football became a highly popular game, which followed by thousands of spectators at stadiums.
In 1968 a victory of strong political importance happened. Only a year after Israel defeating its Arab neighbours in the Six Day War, Iran beat Israel in the finals of the Asian Nations Cup. For the Iranians, the match was not just a contest between nations, but between two religious identities. This victory made Football more acceptable in Iran.
The rivalry between two biggest Iranian Football Clubs, Pirspulis and Taj, usually dominated Iran’s pre-revolutionary Football scene.
‘Taj’ was sponsored by General Khusravani, an armymen with closeness to the rulling Monarch, ‘Pirspulis’ could be identified with the opposition as Princess Fatimah Pahlavi was supposedly one of its major share-holders.
The opposition often alleged that the despotic and corrupt regime had promoted Football, to keep the people apolitical and divert public attention from serious affairs of the State
But with the advent of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, in 1979, Football fell on hard times.
After The Revolution
The leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran felt that the western game of Football was in contradiction with the principles of Sharia. Football as the Western Sports was considered as the means of Capitalistic Imperialism. Religious leaders were somehow disturbed by the ‘nakedness’ of the men who showed their legs and parts of body, that also at the presence of women.
It was then prohibited for women to watch Football matches, since it is believed that an unrelated woman may not look at the naked body of an unrelated man, even if the intent is not deriving lust!
Some Football grounds were turned into places for the weekly Friday prayers and all Football clubs were nationalised. A strong propaganda was raised against Football.
During late 1980s, some of the Islamic leaders began to realise that the policy of disapproval of sports was self-defeating, which would make people idle and work against the regime. They became less strict on sporting events that seemed harmless enough.
During the 1980s, the Iranian National team didn’t attend any World Cups due to the Iran–Iraq War (1980–88). Domestic Football too had the inevitable effects of the War as well.
At the 1990 Asian Games in Beijing, the Iran won the Gold in football. In 1997 Football made a political statement. The coach, Mayili-Kuhan, who was identified with conservative faction, didn’t allow some of Iran’s star players, who played in German Bundesliga teams, to join the national team.
But in the qualifying games for the World Cup, Iran lost 2-0 to Qatar. The matter became serious and was even discussed in the Parliament. This coach was replaced by Valdeir Vieira and under his supervision the team managed to qualify for the FIFA World Cup 1998. The celebrations were huge and only then Iran’s leading politicians learned that by associating themselves with a hugely popular activity they share the interests of the people.
At the FIFA World Cup 1998 in France Iran played against the USA, their political arch rival. There was big excitement on the match because of the US antagonism toward Iranian revolution. In Iran, people celebrated the result of 2-1 as the victory of their team, with strong political message.
The integration of Iranians in world society was symbolically promoted after the competition, when many top Iranian players began playing for foreign football teams, especially in Germany. But Iranian team didn’t succeed in qualifying for the 2002 FIFA World Cup.
Iran made it to World Cup 2006 in Germany. Qualification to the World Cup in Germany again resulted in mass hysteria and celebrations but Iran was temporarily suspended from FIFA due to “government interference in football matters and violation of Article 17 of the FIFA Statutes” (FIFA 2006).
Women Are Not Allowed
Still, women are not free to watch Football publicly.
Football is greatly popular among a part of young Iranian women, despite the religious and official ban, that debar them from watching matches publicly, when the male teams are playing.
When Iran qualified for the 2014 World Cup, huge celebrations were held inside Tehran’s Azadi Stadium. Pictures showed hysterical group of women assembled outside its gates – forbidden from entering the gathering.
The move led to wide protests and quite a number of women were arrested. The ‘Iran Football Federation’ released a statement which said: In this ceremony only men are allowed to be present and women who like the national team are asked to avoid coming to the Azadi Stadium.”
Many protests have sprung up over the last past 35 years of banning women in the Football arena. During the late nineties, the famous ‘White Headscarves’ campaign saw women gather outside stadiums, carrying placards with slogans in Persian : ‘Women’s Rights Equals Half the Freedom.’
While in 1997, after Iran defeated Australia in World Cup qualification round, millions took to the streets in the show of national pride. Many women were seen, struggling with the police, breaking down police barriers and joined the revellers.
In the early 1990s, women’s sport revived through the initiative of the daughter of the then President. Conservatives strongly opposed any kind of women’s presence at men’s sports competitions, but in 1994 it was announced that women could attend Football matches. Only three days after a match, at which 500 women were present in a special section of the Stadium, the Football Federation ultimately cancelled its decision, claiming that some women had publicly cheered and even approached the footballers for autographs and therefore violated the rules of Islamic norms!
Former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad apparently called for the ban to bepermanently lifted in 2006, but was opposed by senior clerics. Hardliners argue that it’s not appropriate for women to attend such events, because men are lewd and the players wear shorts, so are not fully dressed.
Two days before the 2014 FIFA World Cup kicked-off, in which Iran was also a participant , hotels and restaurateurs were cautioned by the authorities not to show the games, as it might cause ‘problems’. The President of the Coffee Shop Owners Union told news agencies that “we have told our members that during the World Cup games they must either turn the TV off or switch to a channel which is not broadcasting the games.” In the official view, views from Brazil, showing women in skimpy dresses and of the mixed crowd was obnoxious for Iranian public.
Cinema owners were also barred from showing the matches to mixed crowds and told to segregate men and women.
But that hasn’t stopped many women meeting in restaurants and other public gatherings, mixing and equally cheering with their male counterparts and often smoking Shisha pipes – ignoring any scoffs and the official ban.
But Iran’s womenfolk, the Football lovers, often refused to be silenced. They still buy tickets on the black market; use their male relatives or colleague’s ID numbers to purchases online tickets – only to be turned away at every stadium.
They even took extreme measures. A group of female Iranian volleyball fans managed to sneak into a game, disguised as foreign women!
Recently women were arrested from a sports venue without headscarves. Fans released a video online later, in which they were seen singing and dancing in support of their National Football team.
Police Chief, General Esmail Ahmadi Moghaddam issued a statement saying that it was “not yet in the public interest” for men and women to attend such events together and a small group of protestors was arrested.
‘Offside’: The Film
‘Offside’ (آفساید) is a widely acclaimed, controversial Persian language film, made in 2006, directed by renowned Iranian Film Director Jafar Panahi. It’s about the football lover Iranian girls who were desperately trying to watch a World Cup qualifying match but are but obstructed by Iranian law.
Panahi, the Iranian filmmaker whose prior work includes films like ‘The Circle’, where about Iranian women were shown, treated as second-class citizens.
From process to message, Panahi’s film is somehow subversive. He was reportedly denied official permission to make this movie, but he proceeded anyway, submitting a less offensive script for review.
Later he was even arrested for his progressive moves and put into jail.
Panahi here passed no judgment about the plight of these hapless female football fans. But he clearly sympathised with the bold young women, who had thorough knowledge of football, its stars and various strategies.
Six football lover Iranian girls disguised themselves as boys for entering Tehran’s Azadi Stadium to watch the 2006 World Cup Asian zone qualifying match between Iran and Bahrain.
Even with their features obscured by brimmed hat, baggy clothes and patriotic face paint, they were still recognised as girls by the ticket collector. “No way”. He said, debarring them from entering the stadium.
Once, their identity was discovered, they were caught one by one.
So instead of watching, enjoying and cheering the men’s team with their nationalistic pride –these enthusiastic girls had to cool their heels in a makeshift enclosure guarded by bored security guards in soldiers’ uniforms.
Barred, yet so close to the brimming action of the football match, the girls tried to know about the score, even bond in camaraderie and confront their captors, the soldiers, with plucky defiance.
The hapless soldiers were visibly unsure what to do and have no good answers for dismissing women.
The young soldiers who were their captors seemed to be just as confused and demoralised as the women themselves.
Despite harsh realities and distressing moments, the film is also full of humorous moments: One of the younger girls needs to go to the toilet, but as usual there is no women’s toilet in the stadium.
A soldier had to escort her to the men’s toilet, which he does by an expedient farcical process. He helps her disguising her face with a poster of a known football star, then throwing a number of angry men out of the toilet and blockading any more from entering he allows her to go in. During the chaos, the girl cleverly escapes into the stadium and joined the euphoria, although she returns to the holding area shortly after as she becomes worried about the soldier escorting him, may get into trouble.
The film’s rich, poignant comedy arises from the sense that all of them, the men and women alike, were trapped in an absurd, inexplicable dilemma.
Sima Mobarak Shahi,Shayesteh Irani,Nazanin Sedighzadeh, Golnaz Farmani, Ayda Sadeqi played the roles of the girls with gusto, representing the sad plight of female football lovers in Iran.
Hijab and Football
The banning of the ‘Hijab’ from the football fields was initially a relatively minor event in Europe and Canada, over these years. The Islamic States and their sports bodies always wanted to lift the ban, while the international sports bodies defended the ban saying that:”The uniform regulations are of a purely sporting nature.”
The wearing of head covers had been banned by FIFA saying that they ‘posed too great a risk of injury to the head or neck’.
However, the International Football Association Board (IFAB), the body that determines the Laws of the Game, then allowed them to be tested out over a two-year period following a request from the Asian Football Confederation (AFC).
In September last year, the Qatar women’s basketball team had withdrawn from the Asian Games in South Korea after being denied permission to wear the Hijab during matches. The players were asked to remove their head scarves before taking on Mongolia but refused and forfeited.
World basketball regulations list headgear and hair accessories among the items that prohibited on court.
The team decided to pull out.
In a statement, Basketball’s World Governing body FIBA had said that its regulations applied “on a global scale and without any religious connotation”.
The statement added: “While certain groups have interpreted the provisions of the official basketball rules as a ban against the participation of players of certain faiths in basketball competitions, the uniform regulations are of a purely sporting nature.”
Some even said , “Afghanistan and Iran are not participating here because of hijab — not because they don’t have athletes.”
FIFA And Hijab
The process of reversing the ban began in 2011, when FIFA officials stopped the Iranian national women’s team from playing in an Olympic qualifying game because their players were wearing Hijab.
The team was minutes from entering the field when they were told they could not play. FIFA later claimed that the Iranian Football Federation had been warned in advance they would not be allowed to play.
During that incident FIFA justified the ban on hijab on the basis of regulations that outlaw the presence of “politics or religion” on uniforms.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in his usual fashion attacked FIFA, referring to them as “dictators” and “colonialists.”
The Iranian ambassador to Jordan even went further, referred to the leaders of the international Football organization as “extremists!”
Various Islamic nations started mobilising, vehemently criticising the ban.
Jordan’s Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein took up the cause, and in March 2012 insisted that FIFA should overturn the ban. He argued that this decision was vital “to ensure that all women are able to play football at all levels without any barriers or discrimination.” (Jordan’s national women’s team had been forced earlier, not to select certain players for international competition because they wished to wear the hijab when they were playing.)
A United Nations sports advisor later wrote to FIFA, urging them to lift the ban, arguing that “FIFA has the responsibility to ensure that everyone has an equal chance to participate in football.”
So, the Hijab had been liked to Human Rights issue cleverly!
After a long discussion, trials and debate In 2012, Football’s Global governing body FIFA changed its rules to allow female Muslim players to wear head scarves, Hijab.
On July 5, 2012, an approval (still temporary in nature) of the Hijab in international women’s Football was passed by FIFA, encouraging much celebration of winning, in Islamic nations. Still the French Football Federation is in refusal mode.
Critics say that FIFA had to succumb after a sustained pressure from the Islamic nations and the influence of the FIFA Executive Committee Member, Prince Ali bin Al-Hussein of Jordan.
Consequently, in 2014, FIFA had also authorised the wearing of head covers for religious purposes during matches, thus allowing Jewish players to wear Kippot and Sikh payers, the Turban, during international football matches.
FIFA became the first international organization to officially take up the issue of the hijab as a human rights issue.
The European Union Court had, on previous occasions, upheld the banning of hijab in France, rebuffing legal activists who claimed they were violations of human rights.
Also it has been pointed that never been any views expressed by the female players themselves about the Hijab. Just the Government sponsored sports bodies.
Off course there is this organisation ‘Right2Wear’, which has been advocating for women’s right to wear headscarves while playing football. But it also alleged they are also sponsored by some Islamic quarters.
The lifting of the ban still remains controversial and debated. But the involvement of UN Human Rights activists, the Iranian Government, the Jordanian Prince, has ultimately transformed the football grounds into a significant battleground over Hijab.
In May 2015, FIFA will elect the President for the next four years.
Current FIFA President Sepp Blatter has been in power since 1998, and under his stewardship there have been allegations of corruption. The most recent of these allegations have involved the bids for the Football World Cup in 2018 and 2022, leading to an internal investigation by the Lawyer Michael Garcia.
The man expecting to be Sepp Blatter’s main opposition is Prince Ali bin Al-Hussein of Jordan.
Appointed head of the Jordan Football Association in his mid-20s, Prince Ali has been involved in his country’s football for last 15 years.
Now a FIFA Vice President, his growing influence was confirmed in the year 2012 when he was instrumental in FIFA’s decision to allow the Hijab in football grounds.
In January last, he announced that he would contest for FIFA Presidentship for more transparency and change. But to convince the 209 National members of the Associations and ousting long standing Blatter is no easy, anyway.
But here is a catch. Iran’s own Women Footballers will now be required to undergo mandatory gender-testing after it was revealed in February last year that four players in the national women’s team were in fact men!
Medical examiners will conduct random checks at training sessions. Iran’s football governing body announced the random checks after it was revealed that several leading players, including four in the national women’s team, were men who had not completed sex change operations or who were suffering from sexual development disorders.
While those who cannot prove they are female will be barred from competing in the women’s competition, they will be re-admitted once they have completed the sex change process.
Even though women are not able to attend matches between male teams, Football is getting immensely popular in Iran among women.
Seven players have already had their contracts terminated since the Iranian Football Federation said that clubs were required to establish a player’s gender before signing them.
Hijab And Pakistani Female Footballers
Encouraged by FIFA’s decision to lift Hijab ban in football grounds, Pakistani women footballers believe that the “historic” decision will boost the sport in Pakistan, particularly in the rural areas where Hijab is a must.
“This is a historic development as it will pave the way for scores of (women) footballers who could not play the sport in different parts of the country as their parents do not allow them to play without observing hijab,” Naila Khan, a member of Pakistan’s national football squad reported in OnIslam.net.
“We welcome this decision, which will enable girls in remote areas, where Hijab is part of our culture, to take up the game,” Naila, 23, who is also working as a sports teacher at a private school in Karachi, said.
“Various girls, who had the potential to represent the national squad, could not come forward because of this ban,” Ahmed Jan, a Karachi based female football trainer, who has been the trainer of seven players of national women football squad, lamented.
Women football in Pakistan is in nascent stage with 22 active clubs and around 500 players across the nation. Most of the clubs are in the cities like Karachi, Islamabad, Lahore, Peshawar, Multan and Faisalabad.
Pakistani women football squad played matches against Qatar in May 2014.
Pakistan also hosted South Asian Women Football Federation Cup in December last year with India, Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Nepal as competitors.
Hijab And Women’s Football In Kashmir
The J&K Football Association, for the first time organised a major women’s football tournament in Srinagar last year, to explore the hidden talent of young girls in the valley.
Shunning taboos and breaking stereotypes, the young women footballers displayed their talents, in highly conservative Kashmir, in the fasting month of Ramzan.
112 women footballers participated in the tournament that has been a runaway success. Mallinson Girls School (MGS) defeated Government College for Women (GCW), in the penalty shootouts in the final match on 11 July last year.
Several girls donned the Hijab, during the matches.
“Hijab is part of my personality. And I feel comfortable in it. Nobody has objected to it. In fact, I would say they (organisers) supported it,” said Iflah Qureshi, the defender of GCW team.
The organisers said that the full body gear instilled confidence among the girls and they could play with ease. SA Hameed, General Secretary of J&K Football Association, said.
Women’s football has always been a taboo in Kashmir. Still many women players have taken interest and joined the game irrespective of social apathy.
“Around 80 per cent people do not encourage women to play football. But I got the support of my parents and that is why I continued playing the game,” Nadia Nighat, right out player of GCW team, said.
Many girls want to play for the national team. But due to harsh climatic conditions, the school exams schedule in Kashmir is such that when the Football season starts outside the State, the Kashmiri students are busy writing exams. Still the football lovers are hopeful.
“We got a good response this year. We will make this tournament a regular feature,” the organisers said.
We wish them all the best.
By: Deep Basu