August 17, 2022
On Wednesday, August 10, two days before the start of the 22nd Iran Pro League, the Iran Football League Organization announced matches this season would all take place without spectators. Eight games duly kicked off on Friday and Saturday before tens of thousands of empty seats.
Earlier, the Iranian Football Federation and National Coronavirus Taskforce had agreed stadiums could be at least at 30 percent capacity throughout the coming season. In a statement published online, the Federation cited “numerous problems” with its electronic ticketing system. The real reason is assumed to be the ban on women entering football stadia, and a last-ditch bid to keep it in place.
Media outlets affiliated with the regime have yet to report on the format change. But some independent ones have taken a harder stance. In a short report, Bank Varzesh called the ticketing line “a lie”; Tarafdari reported that the ticketing system had been working fine on Wednesday but was disabled internally a few hours after sales opened.
Soheil Mehdi, lead organizer of the Pro League, was quoted as having said that very morning: “It would be impossible that the game between Esteghlal and Sepahan teams can be held without spectators.”
A few hours later, the impossible occurred. By then no fewer than 12,000 tickets for Esteghlal v Sepahan had already been sold. Naturally, the system had refused to sell any tickets to women.
The Losses From Keeping Stadia Closed
In early 2020, before the pandemic, some 118,150 fans attended football stadia for the 18th week of Pro League matches, on January 31 and February 1. ISNA reported this was a record low.
Even with the reduced footfall, revenues from ticket sales ran to some 3.5 billion tomans in those two days alone. As IranWire reported in 2020, more than 70 percent of this income is pocketed by companies that belong to the Executive Headquarters of Imam’s Directive (“Setad”), a parastatal body controlled by Ali Khamenei. The clubs themselves get just five percent. But nevertheless, money was made.
Then last season, the Federation raised the price of a Pro League ticket from 30,000 tomans to 80-100,000. Tickets were sold even though most football stadia barely opened last year, and with the new prices, if sold out, they would have generated some 450 billion tomans, or US$17.7m, mostly for the Supreme Leader.
Iran is currently the only country in the world still keeping its sports venues closed. Until now the official pretext was Covid-19, but evidently it was decided that would no longer work.
How Long is FIFA Going to Appease the Islamic Republic?
The sole reason for this erratic behavior is that the Islamic Republic wants to keep women from attending football matches without incurring the wrath of FIFA.
On August 1, the Federation was widely reported to have received a letter from the global football body. The letter reportedly asked the Federation to let women take their place on the stands, as discussed in earlier letters and negotiations, in time for the Pro League.
The Federation issued a public statement claiming the content of the letter had had nothing to do with this issue. Then on August 3, Sports Minister Hamid Sajjadi said the opposite, but told reporters FIFA’s letter had only “asked” Tehran to stop sex-segregating football fans, “if possible”, and letting women in was “not a requirement”.
Sajjadi had every reason to be confident. FIFA has been largely permissive of the open sex discrimination practised by footballing bodies in Iran for four decades, even though its statute bans this practice on pain of suspension or expulsion. However, there is clearly a feeling among officials that it should not be pushed.