By Payam Younesipour
November 14, 2019
FIFA has warned Iran that it faces suspension or “severe sanctions” if the international football body discovers that female fans are still being kept out of stadiums during matches.
Alongside the issue of women being banned from stadiums, there is a range of other issues for Iranian football and its position on the international stage, controversies regarding FIFA, but also sporting authorities from Saudi Arabia and Iraq, as well as the Court of Arbitration in Sport. Furthermore, one of Iranian football’s most influential figures appears to be trying to promote his distorted version of events at every juncture.
With regard to the ban on female fans in stadiums, FIFA president Gianni Infantino has told Iran that he intends to visit an Iranian city to verify that Iranian women can and do attend sports stadiums. It is not clear which city and which stadium he will visit or when — but it is obvious that the international federation has now lost patience with the Islamic Republic’s pretense of lifting the ban, and also with its partial lifting of it on October 10, when about 4,000 women were able to attend an international match between Iran and Cambodia. However, many female fans were unable to buy tickets, despite the fact that the stadium had many empty seats.
Infantino did not issue a public statement about the decision, but instead informed Iran of his plans through intermediaries.
Crises of the Past
The potential suspension constitutes Iranian football’s worst crisis in its history, and yet Iranian football is no stranger to near-disaster, having undergone several serious crises since the Islamic Revolution of 1979.
On April 1, 1979, shortly after the revolution, the legendary Iranian goalkeeper Nasser Hejazi was asked to carry a photograph of Ayatollah Khomeini when he entered the stadium as a game was about to start. “I don’t believe in the regime itself; you want me to carry the picture?” he said and refused to do it. As a result, he was pushed out of the game.
Hejazi had received an offer to play for Manchester United, so he went to the United Kingdom and trained and played with the club for a month. Manchester United managers hoped to keep Hejazi on the team and he signed a contract with them. Soon after, the football team received a very short message from the English Football Association: “Nasser Hejazi must return. He does not have our consent. The Iranian Football Federation has not been recognized [by FIFA].” Still, Manchester United kept him for three months, hoping that FIFA would soon recognize Iran. It did not happen, and they had no choice but to let Hejazi go.
The 1980-88 war with Iraq kept Iran off football pitches — two FIFA World Cups passed without Iran being able to attempt to qualify. Before the revolution, Kambiz Atabay, the last president of the Iranian football federation under the Shah, had put Iran forward as the host of the 1990 World Cup, but the Islamic Republic withdrew the offer while the war was on.
After this, Iranian football was in a volatile situation, and it was obvious to the international footballing community. In the very first month of 1998, as Mohsen Safaei Farahani took over the presidency of the Iranian Football Federation, FIFA’s president João Havelange told him: “For years now we have not known who the president of Iran’s football federation is. Sometimes the president has been changed twice in one year.”
Eight years later, Sepp Blatter, Havelange’s successor as president of FIFA, suspended Iranian football because of “interference of politics in football.”
FIFA Getting Tired of the “Iran problem”
Despite these problems, however, Iranian football has never been in a jam quite like the one it is in today. On the one hand, the Iranian Football Federation, now headed by Mehdi Taj, writes to FIFA about the interference of the regime in its internal affairs. On the other hand, FIFA does understand that Iranian football is closely tied to the Iranian political establishment and its policies. The most clear example is the ongoing ban on female spectators attending stadiums — despite the Iranian federation’s attempts to make it look otherwise, and the recent “lifting” of the ban.
And yet another example is the disappearance of the money FIFA paid the Iranian Football Federation for qualifying for World Cup competitions. Although FIFA paid the team the amount awarded to all national teams that qualify, the figures presented by the Iranian federation do not tally with FIFA’s own figures, and there are huge discrepancies between the two — over a million dollars.
So how has Iran reacted to the looming crisis and Infantino’s pledge to find out once and for all whether Iranian women are being allowed into stadiums?
The Iranian Football Federation has launched a series of campaigns in domestic media, for which the federation’s Media Committee has been partially responsible. So who is on the committee?
According to the Iranian federation’s charter, the five members of the committee must be elected from among journalists and photojournalists. But currently, Mehdi Taj directly appoints the members of the committee on a permanent basis, and they are all editors-in-chiefs at Fars, Tasnim, and Mehr news agencies, as well as for the Iranian Students’ News Agency (ISNA), the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), the judiciary-run Mizan news agency, and for the newspaper Khabar Varzeshi (“Sports News”) and the website Varzesh 3. In other words, members of the federation’s Media Committee are selected based not on their own qualifications but on their influence and the connections of the media outlets that employ them.
The members are duty-bound to further the aims of the football federation’s president vis-à-vis the international football federation. And one of the president’s wishes is to involve Hamid Reza Assefi, a retired diplomat, in federation dealings.
Who is Hamid Reza Assefi?
Assefi was born in 1952 in Tehran and has a Ph.D. in chemistry from a UK university. He was first employed by the oil ministry in 1981 and then worked for the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), but in 1984 Ali Akbar Velayati brought him into the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Assefi’s fluent English, German and French first secured him a position at the Iranian embassy in East Germany and then an ambassadorship in France under the administration of President Hashemi Rafsanjani. After Mohammad Khatami took over the presidency, Assefi returned to Iran and was appointed as the foreign ministry’s spokesman.
“Ali Parvin, Ghasem Panahgar and Mansour Amirassefi [veteran Iranian footballers] were our neighbors,” Assefi told a radio program in 2017. “I fell in love with football and with playing in dusty fields. Once in awhile I also engaged in wrestling in the 52kg class, but in the end I had to choose between sports and education.” However, Assefi was actually not a very talented footballer in a country that nurtured very promising and skilled players. He had no other option but to abandon the idea of a career in sports.
Nevertheless, being in the world of politics helped Assefi to keep close to sports. Under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad he even became a member of Esteghlal FC’s board of directors before going to the United Arab Emirates as Iran’s ambassador.
On June 11, 2016, Mehdi Taj appointed Assefi as his advisor in international affairs. As an advisor, he had more power than the director of the federation’s international relations department. For instance, on August 17, 2016, Taj and Assefi flew to Switzerland together to meet FIFA president Gianni Infantino while Omid Jamali, then the head of international relations, was left behind in Tehran.