By Payam Younesipour
November 24, 2021
In the sixth week of Persian Gulf Pro League matches in Iran, the man in charge of making it all happen has thrown cold water over the prospect of fans returning. Soheil Mehdi, president of the Iran Football League Organization, announced that with the sole exception of an upcoming game between Persepolis and Sanat Naft Abadan FC the doors will remain closed to spectators.
The announcement was something of a surprise, particularly after Esteghlal fans were allowed into Azadi Stadium last week to watch their team play Nassaji Mazandaran. Up until now the official pretext for ongoing closures has been coronavirus; this time, no clear explanation was given.
“Unfortunately, it is not possible,” Soheil Mehdi, asked why the ban on spectators was being kept in place. He named the Ministries of Sports and Health as being jointly responsible for all decisions on Pro League venues, adding: “These two institutions are evaluating the best model for separating spectators in stadiums.”
This, too, looks strange from the outside as the government has now pressed ahead with the reopening of schools, universities, swimming pools and gyms despite rising Covid-19 cases in Iran. The Esteghlal fans last week were not asked to provide proof of vaccination, or even a ticket: they were simply let in on match day. Inside Iran, few are under any illusion about the real reason for stadiums remaining closed: the relentless pressure from FIFA for Iranian sports officials to admit women spectators as well as men.
Football Officials Stuck Between FIFA and a Fatwa
In September, FIFA president Gianni Infantino met with Shahaboddin Azizi Khadem, president of the Iranian Football Federation. He asked that Tehran lay the groundwork for Iranian women to be allowed into Azadi Stadium to watch the Iran vs South Korea World Cup Qualifier match on October 12. After some initially positive noises, not 48 hours before the event, the Iranian side announced no-one would be allowed into Azadi Stadium at all.
Minister of Sports and Youth Hamid Sajjadi claimed the reason for this was opposition by the Asian Football Confederation to the presence of Iranian spectators in the stadium. Federation secretary-general Hassan Kamranifar then told the IRIB: “South Korea has nothing to do with FIFA or the Asian Football Confederation. Directors of the [Iranian] Football Federation have concluded that the game will be without spectators.”
This time, in justifying the closure of Pro League matches to fans, Soheil Mehdi complained about “non-compliance with hygiene rules” at the Esteghlal game, pleading: “Let’s give the clubs space to enjoy the support of their fans.” This came even though at that match, security staff were seen physically confiscating hand sanitizer from fans at the gates. Large parts of Azadi Stadium were closed off for crowd control reasons, forcing fans into a smaller space and making social distancing harder. In the confined space left to them by the police, most of the fans pictured were wearing masks as expected.
The real reason for the closure was that after years of missed ultimatums, Iran faced the very real prospect of suspension by FIFA if men, but not women, were allowed through the stadium doors – as has been the case for the last 33 years. In 1987, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa clarifying that women could watch football on television at home, but prohibited them from entering match venues. In 2006 Khomeini’s successor as supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, vetoed an attempt by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to reverse the ban.
For years now FIFA has reiterated its “firm and clear” position that all Iranian women should be allowed access to all matches, on a par with men. The bind that Iranian football officials are in now appears to be at breaking point.
Meanwhile, the Revolutionary Guards-affiliated Fars News Agency called FIFA a “politicized” and “Zionist” organization three times in a single month. It also described Infantino as “a slave ready to suppress the Palestinians”. This was positioned as a response to the suggestion that Israel might host the 2030 World Cup, but it also forms part of a wider project to link non-misogyny and good practice in sports to Israeli policy.
Our prediction is that the Iranian Football Federation will not so much as open ticket sales for Persepolis vs. Sanat Naft. It knows full well that any shred of evidence of discrimination against women could lead to a sanction from FIFA – one that’s been a long time coming.