eye wit­ness Fe­male fans long­ing to fol­low their team

Protests in Rus­sia and Tehran see sup­port for the cam­paign to al­low women to watch foot­ball in Iran

World Soccer - - Eye Witness - James Mon­tague

“It is their right, they have to be in the sta­di­ums, foot­ball is not for men only” Women’s rights ac­tivist “Sara”

They had brought signs and ban­ners but, most im­por­tantly, they had brought tick­ets too. Out­side the Saint Peters­burg Sta­dium, shortly be­fore Iran were pre­par­ing to play Morocco at the 2018 World Cup fi­nals back in June, a small group of ac­tivists were stag­ing a protest un­der the watch­ful but non-in­ter­ven­tion­ist eye of the nearby Rus­sian po­lice.

“Sup­port Ira­nian women to at­tend sta­di­ums #NoBan4Women,” read the big­gest and most prom­i­nent signs. Ira­nian fans, both men and women, stopped to take pho­to­graphs and make vic­tory signs.

“It is their right, they have to be in the sta­di­ums, foot­ball is not for men only,” said Sara, who had or­gan­ised for the signs to be there. Sara is an Ira­nian ac­tivist who runs the pop­u­lar @OpenS­ta­di­ums Twit­ter ac­count, which has al­most sin­gle-hand­edly brought global at­ten­tion to one of world foot­ball’s most press­ing is­sues: the near four-decade long ban on women from at­tend­ing matches in Iran.

On­line ac­tivism is dan­ger­ous work in Iran. “Sara” is not her real name and she has to care­fully com­mu­ni­cate by en­crypted mes­sen­ger.

Ac­tivists are rou­tinely jailed in Iran’s no­to­ri­ous Evin Prison for far less. But, for a few weeks at least, Rus­sia had of­fered her a much safer space to protest. FIFA had given Sara and her group per­mis­sion to carry the ban­ner into the sta­dium – some­thing which would usu­ally be pro­hib­ited. FIFA would later ar­gue that the poster was a so­cial rather than a po­lit­i­cal mes­sage.

But this was also a spe­cial game for a dif­fer­ent rea­son. It was the first time that Sara had legally at­tended a match, with her own ticket.

“Ev­ery time we went to demon­strate, it never hap­pened,” she said of her pre­vi­ous at­tempts in Iran to buy a ticket out­side Tehran’s huge Azadi Sta­dium, shortly be­fore find­ing her seat ahead of the

Morocco game. “Now foot­ball is go­ing from two di­men­sions to three di­men­sions.”

At the start of this year, two ma­jor foot­ball pow­ers still up­held bans on women at­tend­ing foot­ball matches. Saudi Ara­bia was one, but that ban was lifted at the be­hest of the coun­try’s new, young crown prince Mo­ham­mad Bin Sal­man. The Saudi ban on women driv­ing was also lifted, al­though scores of fem­i­nist ac­tivists were later put in jail and some were even sent to death row.

In Iran, the ban stayed firmly in place. Back in March, FIFA pres­i­dent Gianni In­fantino vis­ited Tehran, os­ten­si­bly to see the derby be­tween Perse­po­lis and Estegh­lal, which is one of the big­gest games in Asia. The match was held at the Azadi Sta­dium and the at­mos­phere was ex­plo­sive, with 100,000 peo­ple packed into the ground nine hours be­fore kick-off. In­side two huge por­traits – of the Imam Khome­ini, who led the coun­try’s 1979 Is­lamic rev­o­lu­tion, and the Ay­a­tol­lah Khamenei, Iran’s cur­rent spir­i­tual leader

– dom­i­nated the sta­dium, tow­er­ing over the east stand. One half of the sta­dium wore the red colours of Perse­po­lis, the other half were in the blue of Estegh­lal.

The Ira­nian press re­ported that In­fantino would meet pres­i­dent Has­san Rouhani to press him on the sta­dium ban. In­fantino’s pre­de­ces­sor, Sepp Blat­ter, made the same jour­ney and asked about the same is­sue but with no suc­cess.

As In­fantino set­tled into his seat at the Azadi to watch the derby, out­side the sta­dium 35 young women and girls, some dressed as men and wear­ing fake beards, were be­ing ar­rested for try­ing to il­le­gally gain en­trance to the sta­dium.

Sara has been cam­paign­ing against the ban for more than a decade. When she started out in 2005 she would protest with a few hun­dred women out­side the Azadi be­fore Iran home games. But when the po­lit­i­cal cli­mate turned harsher af­ter the elec­tion of the hard­line pres­i­dent Mah­moud Ah­madine­jad the protests de­clined. With the fail­ure in 2009 of the Green Rev­o­lu­tion – an up­ris­ing against what many peo­ple thought was the theft of that year’s pres­i­den­tial elec­tion – the protests stopped al­to­gether. So Sara turned to so­cial me­dia to get her voice out. “I was com­pletely alone,” she says. “Tweet­ing these or­gan­i­sa­tions, keep­ing my iden­tity se­cret. You don’t want to be dis­cov­ered. Some­times I get re­ally afraid.”

But in re­cent years there had been greater hope of change. Ah­madine­jad has been re­placed by Rouhani, who is seen as a rel­a­tive mod­er­ate and had made pos­i­tive noises to Blat­ter about lift­ing the ban, which wasn’t, it turned out, ab­so­lute.

One home in­ter­na­tional against Bahrain in 2005 saw some Ira­nian fe­male rel­a­tives of the play­ers and of­fi­cials en­ter the sta­dium. And for­eign fe­male fans have long been al­lowed in to the Azadi, just not any Ira­ni­ans, much to the cha­grin on Sara and her fel­low ac­tivists. One ac­tivist told me that hun­dreds of Syr­ian women were al­lowed into Iran’s fi­nal 2018 World Cup qual­i­fier and that it was even pos­si­ble for Ira­nian women to buy tick­ets. But still they weren’t al­lowed in. “We were there, out­side

the sta­dium and the side opened and all of a sud­den you could buy tick­ets. They don’t sell us tick­ets,” ex­plained Jazmin (not her real name). “The guards were re­ally sorry we couldn’t go in. But the Syr­ian women could go in! The ban is just for Ira­nian women! Aus­tralian, Ir­ish women.”

So the ar­rival of In­fantino pro­vided an op­por­tu­nity. Sara and her fel­low ac­tivists be­lieved that there was no way any­one would be ar­rested with the FIFA pres­i­dent there, so they be­gan to for­mu­late a plan to at­tend the game.

As there was no of­fi­cial law against women entering sta­di­ums – the ban had been de­creed un­of­fi­cially shortly af­ter Iran’s Is­lamic rev­o­lu­tion and has sim­ply con­tin­ued ever since – Sara and her friends de­cided to turn up at the sta­dium with­out any dis­guises. But at the sta­dium the group was de­nied en­try and told they would be ar­rested if they didn’t leave. They were ar­rested any­way.

Sara got there late and ar­rived to find out that 35 peo­ple had been ar­rested and taken to the Vozara De­ten­tion Cen­ter, a jail of­ten used to hold women for moral­ity crimes. They in­cluded her friends as well as ran­dom groups of other women who had been caught try­ing to sneak in dressed as men.

All 35 women and girls were put in the same room but they were al­lowed to keep their phones. A selfie Taken by one of the women went vi­ral on Tele­gram, which is by far the most pop­u­lar so­cial­me­dia plat­form in Iran. They all ex­changed num­bers and tips about what to do next time and, more im­por­tantly, how to more ac­cu­rately walk and gen­er­ally act like a man to avoid de­tec­tion.

Mean­while, Sara had sprung into ac­tion and con­tacted two fe­male Ira­nian MPs to help pres­sure for their release.

“The Is­lamic repub­lic is not a whole pack­age of bad peo­ple,” Sara ex­plains when we met shortly af­ter the Tehran derby. “If you are liv­ing in this coun­try you have to find some ways into the sys­tem.”

The sys­tem is so com­plex – split be­tween po­lit­i­cal, re­li­gious and mil­i­tary power bases that of­ten con­flict and over­lap – that change is slow.

“In Saudi,” Sara says of the re­cent lift­ing of the ban there, “one per­son de­cides. Here, we have so many peo­ple. So many ay­a­tol­lahs. There is a pres­i­dent and cab­i­net. And the supreme leader.” She be­lieves the best sce­nario is to let women in step by step. “But they have to start it!”

And it isn’t just ac­tivists speak­ing out these days. Prom­i­nent play­ers have also raised the is­sue pub­licly, with the most fa­mous ex­am­ple be­ing the cap­tain of the na­tional team, Ma­soud Sho­jaei.

Af­ter Iran se­cured qual­i­fi­ca­tion for rus­sia 2018, the en­tire team was taken for a re­cep­tion with pres­i­dent rouhani. Tra­di­tion­ally, play­ers would ask for bet­ter bonuses or more fund­ing for the na­tional team. But on this oc­ca­sion Sho­jaei raised the is­sue of the sta­dium ban with the pres­i­dent di­rectly.

“I can ask for some­thing more im­por­tant,” he said when we met be­fore the World Cup. “To do some­thing for my peo­ple as the cap­tain of the na­tional team.

“I said to the pres­i­dent the sit­u­a­tion. And he was kind. He said: ‘We have a plan to do this’.”

But the ban wasn’t lifted, and in­stead Sho­jaei found him­self in the in­ter­na­tional wilder­ness. Shortly af­ter that meet­ing he re­turned to Greece where he was play­ing for Athens side Pan­io­n­ios. They were in the Europa League and had been drawn against Mac­cabi Tel Aviv. There is a strict but un­of­fi­cial ban on Ira­nian sports men and women com­pet­ing against Is­raelis, and con­ser­va­tive voices in Iran de­manded Sho­jaei and his Ira­nian team-mate Eh­san Ha­jsafi refuse to play in the tie. But the club needed them and they both made an ap­pear­ance in the sec­ond game in Greece.

Sho­jaei was left out of the na­tional

“They [Ira­nian women] are the ones who won tonight. Hope­fully the first of many” Ser­gio Ramos, af­ter Spain beat Iran at this sum­mer’s World Cup

squad for months, un­til coach Car­los Queiroz slowly re-in­tro­duced him shortly be­fore the fi­nals. “My job was to read the sit­u­a­tion, cool it down. Let the dust go down,” Queiroz later said when asked about the de­ci­sion to bring back Sho­jaei. “I was ab­so­lutely in con­trol of my de­ci­sions and I al­ways call with all free­dom and au­thor­ity the play­ers that I want.”

When the World Cup ar­rived, lit­tle was ex­pected of Iran, who were drawn in a group with a very tal­ented Morocco team, as well as Spain and Por­tu­gal. But Sara’s first game ended in ju­bi­la­tion. An in­jury-time own goal gave Iran a 1-0 vic­tory against the north African side, their first World Cup win since they beat USA at France 98. “I don’t know how to cel­e­brate, I was shocked,” she said af­ter the game. “It was some­thing I had never ex­pe­ri­enced be­fore. I need to go to more games.”

The next game gave the cam­paign even more vis­i­bil­ity. For the first time in decades it was de­cided at the last minute that women would be al­lowed in to the Azadi

Sta­dium to watch Iran play Spain on the big screen. Spain won 1-0 but af­ter­wards de­fender Ser­gio Ramos tweeted: “They [Ira­nian women] are the ones who won tonight. Hope­fully the first of many.” His post has been liked nearly 75,000 times.

Iran’s hopes of reach­ing the knock­out stage ended with a 1-1 draw against Por­tu­gal, dur­ing which Cris­tiano Ron­aldo es­caped a red card for throw­ing an el­bow. “El­bow is a red card in the rules, the rules doesn’t say if it’s Messi or Ron­aldo,” said Queiroz af­ter­wards. He went home de­jected, but the good news is that the coach has agreed to stay on at least un­til Jan­uary’s 2019 Asian Cup.

Sara and other ac­tivists in Iran con­tinue to take huge risks to get the ban lifted.

Fol­low­ing his visit back in March, In­fantino seemed to sug­gest that it was diplo­macy done qui­etly be­hind closed doors that would achieve the great­est suc­cess. But that doesn’t seem to be work­ing. The FIFA pres­i­dent made no com­ment on the ar­rests while in Iran. Later he would claim that he had brought up the is­sue in pri­vate, al­though he didn’t say with whom.

The fact that FIFA al­lowed Sara’s ban­ner into the Iran ver­sus Morocco game shows there are some within FIFA sym­pa­thetic to the cause of lift­ing Iran’s sta­di­ums ban. But Sara be­lieves that In­fantino’s visit should have ended it once and for all. It was, she says, a wasted op­por­tu­nity and there has been si­lence from In­fantino on the is­sue ever since. “His words go into thin air,” Sara says. “Noth­ing hap­pens.”

As ever in Iran, two com­pet­ing nar­ra­tives ap­pear to be fight­ing it out for supremacy. On the one hand Iran now seems to be dou­bling down on the ban. At the start of the do­mes­tic sea­son the coun­try’s Fars news agency re­ported that 500 CCTV cam­eras would be in­stalled to try pick out trou­ble­mak­ers and in par­tic­u­lar fe­male fans dis­guised as men.

“The pres­ence of girls in the sta­dium in male dis­guise is an in­sult to women,” said Ab­dol­hamid Ah­madi, deputy sports min­is­ter, quoted by op­po­si­tion me­dia. “It tar­nishes the im­ages of sports… these ladies even cre­ate prob­lems for the spec­ta­tors.”

While in Tehran, FIFA pres­i­dent Gianni In­fantino claimed he had brought up the is­sue [of women at foot­ball] in pri­vate, al­though he didn’t say with whom

The first Tehran derby of the 2018-19 sea­son was again played in front of an all male crowd. Again, women were ar­rested for try­ing to en­ter the sta­dium dressed as men. But then it was an­nounced at the last minute that the fe­male rel­a­tives of Ira­nian play­ers and of­fi­cials would be al­lowed in to the Azadi to watch a friendly game in Oc­to­ber, against Bo­livia. Hun­dreds of women saw Iran win 2-1 even though hun­dreds more were left locked out­side. They had ar­rived in the hope that they too may be al­lowed in, even if they weren’t re­lated to a player or FA of­fi­cial. At the time it seemed like a sig­nif­i­cant move and there were hopes that the same would hap­pen for the crunch sec­ond leg Asian Cham­pi­ons League semi-fi­nal be­tween Perse­po­lis and Qatar’s Al Saad. In­stead, it was an­nounced that no women, whether re­lated to any play­ers or oth­er­wise, would be al­lowed in at all. Iran’s fe­male foot­ball ac­tivists might have taken one step for­ward in re­cent months, but they soon took two steps back.

“This, go­ing into the sta­dium, comes out of my heart. I am do­ing this not just be­cause it is a right we do not have but be­cause I would love to go to the sta­di­ums,” said Jazmin, who has never seen Perse­po­lis play in the flesh.

“For this one I am will­ing to sac­ri­fice and pay the price for it.”

Global sup­port...fans in Saint Peters­burg at the World Cup with Sara’s flag

Protest...an Ira­nian ac­tivist in Rus­sia

Men only... derby day in Tehran as Perse­po­lis take on Estegh­lal

Meet­ing...Iran’s min­is­ter of sport and youth Ma­soud Soltan­i­far (right) with Gianni In­fantino

Skip­per...Ma­soud Sho­jaei (in white) leads Iran out against Morocco

At home...women pre­pare to watch the Spain game on a big screen in the Azadi

Sound...Iran fans make them­selves heard

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