The year was 2017, but at the Azadi stadium in Iran, Syrian women were allowed for a World Cup qualifier match vs Syria while female Iran football fans were absent…
As conservatism plays a critical role in every bit of legislature in the Middle East, we take a look at its role in the running of football in a country that was tipped to embrace modernity a long time ago.
The primordial argument against liberalism is the impending risk of it steamrolling indigenous cultures. Conservatism does not allow unfamiliar praxis to meddle with the inveterate traditions that have been in practice for centuries.
Be it politics, economics or sport, there is a sense of unsullied traditionalism attached to things that we admire, and certain changes to them irks even the most left-wing oriented people in our society. For example, the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) technology – one of the most controversial additions to football – has made millions of fans vent their frustrations over its exasperating ability to put a stopper to a seamless game of football.
I will admit, as technology reaches new heights, that the VAR will improve to deliver a faster and more accurate verdict, but after watching its functionality for nearly a year in certain leagues around the world, one cannot help but sigh at its needlessness. Just search “VAR controversy” on Google and you will be attacked by a sea of articles and editorials advocating against it.
Coming back to the original theme of this disquisition, conservatism and anti-globalisation are once again on the rise. Well, to be fair they have always been “up there”, but the reason the world is finally taking notice is because right-wing politics has once again made its way into the Western political spectrum. The Middle East, meanwhile, continues to adhere to the strict theocratic laws of Islam.
The Azadi Stadium in Iran’s capital city Tehran was opened in 1973. Originally named Aryamehr, which roughly translated means Light of the Aryans, it was rebranded as Azadi, meaning freedom, following the Islamic Revolution of 1979. But despite its name, it represents something spectacularly contrasting.
Female football fans have been barred from watching men’s football in the stadium ever since the Revolution. Unlike the days of the Shah, when both men and women enjoyed more or less the same civil liberties, the dawn of theocracy (a system of government in which priests rule in the name of God or a god) immediately snatched away all the privileges from one particular sex. Still, it did not deter the spirit of some football-starved women of Tehran who braved the wrath of the Ayatollah by disguising themselves as men and entering the stadium.
Daughters of clerics and important political personalities voiced their concerns over this archaic rule and it seemed like the protests finally hit the chord. In 1987, Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini issued a fatwa that reappraised the regime’s stance on women and their involvement in sport. As per the new ruling, female football fans were given permission to watch the game on television – live matches would be broadcasted for the first time in the country’s history. But it still prohibited them from entering the stadium.
Khomeini’s mind sometimes exhibited a stunning amalgamation of absurdity, inanity and downright hypocrisy. In 1979, he made homosexuality punishable by law, but in 1987, the same year he issued a second fatwa prohibiting women from entering football stadiums, he made gender reassignment surgeries permissible for transsexuals.
“After the Revolution, women’s sports became a victim of gender segregation. From the first days of the Islamic government, women were banned from entering stadiums even though there were no official laws dictating such banning,” said Tonia Valioghli, a former Iranian swimming champion.
The battle for equality continued for the poor Iranian women who wanted to get provisional respite from the humdrum of everyday life.
Respite came in the form of the 1998 FIFA World Cup in France. The Iran football team were mighty close to qualifying for the event and all hopes lay on a play-off against the Terry-Venables-coached Australian national side in the November of 1997. The Iranians were led by Valdeir Vieira, a Brazilian coach who had previously managed clubs from Venezuela and Costa Rica, among others. He was the first foreign manager in the history of the Iranian national team.
Iran’s journey to this play-off kicked off in spectacular fashion against the Maldives in the preliminary round group opener. Played at the Abbasayyin Stadium in Damascus, the Iranians won by 17 goals to nil with star midfielder Karim Bagheri scoring seven of the goals. They beat Maldives 9-0 in the return fixture in Tehran.
Other memorable games included a 7-0 hammering of Kyrgyzstan away from home. Bagheri, then enjoying his Persepolis, scored an incredible 12 goals in six games during the preliminary round.
He followed that up with six goals in eight matches in the final round, but Iran finished second behind Saudi Arabia in the final standings, resulting in a single leg play-off with Japan who finished second in the other group. The two teams met at the Larkin Stadium in Malaysia for the decider. With the match tied at 2-2 at the end of 90 minutes, Urawa Red Diamonds midfielder Masayuki Okano scored the golden goal in the 118th minute to send his country through.
The Iranian dream now relied on one final fixture – a two-legged play-off against the Australians.
The Aussies were greeted by 128,000 screaming Iranians at the Azadi Stadium for the first leg. There were reports of concerns expressed by the Australians citing safety issues to play in a country like Iran, but the match went ahead anyway.
“We went out for the pre-match to have a look at the pitch and plenty of us we’re saying ‘that’s why we play, for this moment’,” recalled Alex Tobin, captain of that Australian side. “It wasn’t a sort of daunting or scary crowd or anything like that. Obviously, they were as passionate as anybody but really it was just a matter of professional players loving those occasions.”
Harry Kewell, then of Leeds United, put the visitors in front in the 19th minute before Khodadad Azizi, the ‘Speedy Gazelle of Iran’, equalised five minutes before the half-time interval. Unfortunately for the home side, the score remained 1-1 at full-time and the Aussies had their crucial away goal.
The hopes and dreams of an entire nation rested on the second leg of the play-off. But Iran were awful on the road. They had failed to win their group and had lost to Japan in the play-off for the third Asian spot. This was their final bid for something, for the lack of a better word, eternal.
Around 98,000 fans filled the stands at the Melbourne Cricket ground for this far-reaching spectacle. Kewell once again opened the scoring before Aurelio Vidmar made it 2-0 to the home team just minutes after the restart. The Iranian dreams had been shattered. Considering their terrible away record, coupled with the uphill task they faced, the odds were astronomical for them to qualify for the World Cup in France.
To make matters worse, well-known prankster Peter Hore ran up to the pitch and damaged the goal netting in the Iranian half which caused a long delay in play. In the 72nd minute, Kewell was booked for a collision against goalkeeper Ahmadreza Abedzadeh. This somewhat quelled the Aussie dominance for a bit, as a result of which, Iran responded with two quick-fire goals. Karim Bagheri pulled one back in the 75th minute after being set up by Azizi before Azizi himself scored the most important goal in Iran’s history to send them to the World Cup.
“I just sat there and prayed. I’m really sorry for the Australians and I know how Australian kids who play football are suffering. Australia should have been the winner here,” said Vieira after the game.
Iran’s last appearance at a World Cup event was in 1978 in Argentina. This would be the first time since the exiled Khomeini’s return to the country in 1979 that Team Melli would play in a World Cup.
The draw pitted Iran and the United States of America in the same group with Yugoslavia and Germany. The match against the US could arguably go down as the most politically charged game of football ever played at a World Cup event. Diplomatic relationship between the two countries had become borderline hostile ever since Khomeini’s coup that ousted the US-backed Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in 1979. The memory of the well-documented hostage crisis that followed the Revolution was still fresh in the eyes of many Americans.
Iran lost their first game 1-0 against Yugoslavia in Saint-Etienne while the US fell victim to the Germans in Paris. The hour of reckoning came on June 21 at the Stade de Gerland in Lyon. Mojahhedin-e Khalq, an Iraq-and-Saddam-Hussein-backed militant organisation had reportedly bought 7,000 of the tickets to stage a protest against Iran. But the French authorities made it certain that no party, organisation or revolutionary group could use this opportunity to forward their own political agenda.
If matters off the pitch were worrying, on-field issues presented their own challenges. As per FIFA’s regulations, ‘Team B’ should walk towards ‘Team A’ for the pre-match tradition of shaking hands. Unfortunately for FIFA, the Iran football team were the designated ‘Team B’ on the day and Aayatollah Ali Hosseini Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, had issued express orders that no Iranian must walk towards the Americans to shake hands. A compromise was negotiated and the Americans agreed to walk towards their Iranian counterparts.
The Iranian players played their part in a spectacular fashion that appeared as a thinly veiled act of rebellion against the regime. Each player carried a bouquet of white roses, a symbol of peace, to present to the American internationals. A group photo was taken prior to kick-off, the players from the two countries intermingling with each other. It was a fantastic gesture from the professionals who let political tensions subside, momentarily at least, to display the true spirit of sport for the world to see.
“We did more in 90 minutes than politicians did in 20 years,” said US defender Jeff Agoos.
Iran took the lead five minutes before half-time courtesy of a goal from Hamid Estili before Mehdi Mahdavikia added another in the 83rd minute to establish a solid 2-0 lead with minutes left to play. Brian McBride added a late consolation for the US, but the Iranians held on to their advantage to register their first ever victory at a World Cup event. The defeat condemned the Americans to an early exit from France. Iran finished third in the group and were eliminated from the competition as well, but the effect this victory had over the Iranian public was unfathomable.
I think it is important to note here that at this point, Iran was being unwittingly led towards liberalisation. Mohammad Khatami was the President after running a campaign on promises of reform, freedom of expression and tolerance. Khatami supported a free market, welcomed foreign investment in the country and was not opposed to reopening diplomatic relations with the West.
And in these parts of the world, football represented one of the hallmarks of Western liberalisation and of freedom of expression.
During the elections, Khatami was an underdog. He was up against another cleric called Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri who had the blessings of Ayatollah Khamenei himself. While Khatami ran his campaign on the platform of progressiveness, Nateq-Nouri represented the ultra-conservatism of a theocratic government. Nateq-Nouri endorsed the traditional Iranian sport of zurkhaneh, while Khatami sided with football and surrounded himself with famous footballers who endorsed him.
Despite this, Khatami was widely written off. But in the end, he won 70% of the votes to become the new President. The tides were seemingly turning.
Following Iran’s qualification for the World Cup, the regime grew anxious over widespread celebrations on the streets of Tehran. Western pop music blared from loudspeakers as hundreds of thousands took to the streets to showcase their joy. It would have been one thing if the crowd consisted of just men, but among the men, were Iran’s football-loving women, many of whom were noticed partying without the mandatory headscarves.
When the religious police, the basij, confronted these revellers, they were persuaded to enjoy the merriment themselves. The regime ordered the Iranian delegation to take their sweet time to return from Australia and broadcasted radio announcements that warned the citizens from indulging in such wild celebrations. The women were urged to stay inside their homes during the national team’s homecoming party.
Our heroes arrived in the Azadi Stadium via helicopters for the celebrations but the real extravaganza was taking place outside the stadium as thousands of women defied the regime’s warnings and gathered at the gates demanding entry. Fearing a riot on such an auspicious day, the police allowed three thousand female fans into a segregated seating area inside the stadium. Two thousand more women muscled their way past the turnstiles. The police conceded defeat.
But twenty years on from that historic day, women in Iran continue to face the unfair laws that keep them out of the stadium during men’s football. In September 2017, the Iran football team played a World Cup qualifier against Syria at the Azadi Stadium. Women were surprisingly allowed to purchase tickets for the game but were refused entry. When protested, they were threatened with arrest. To add insult to injury, no laws prohibited the Syrian women from entering the ground. The government branded the sale of tickets to women as a “technical glitch”.
“The most deplorable part of yesterday’s match at Azadi stadium is that a new discrimination based on your nationality is being added to the gender discrimination already in place. Syrian women were allowed but Iranian women were absent,” tweeted Nahid Tajedin, a female Iranian MP.
It is not like attempts at inclusiveness have not been made. In 2006, former President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad sought the advice of clerics to rethink the ban on women but faced widespread criticism from the ultra-conservative politicians in the government.
Of course, the country now faces far more pressing issues, both politically and economically, to even give a cursory glance towards this predicament. Liberalism and secularism exist only on the fringes of Iran’s political spectrum. While one could argue that a football revolution might just offer the spark for a major upheaval in the country, it should be noted that it would take a tremendous amount of self-realisation from the men running the government to initiate any change that ushers in a new dawn of hope.