By Niloufar Momeni
It was expected to be just a “friendly” game, sealing another victory at home and ending on good merits by Iran national football team against Syria. Yet, on Tuesday last week, there were several controversy-fueled backlashes from football fans, as well as the national team players against Iran football officials.
The final World Cup qualifier against Syria proved to be more intense than previously anticipated. A strong do-or-die performance by the visitors vying for a World Cup berth, in addition to flaws in Iran’s defense, saw the hosts conceding in the last moments of the game through a great counter-attack goal by Syria’s MVP, Omar Al Somah.
It was a disappointing night for the hosts, as their longest-lasting clean sheet record during Asia’s World Cup qualifiers finally came to an end. However, Syria have managed to secure World Cup playoff berth against Australia; a symphony for the ears of millions of displaced war-torn Syrians.
The real controversy of the game, though, happened off the pitch, in the stands, outside the stadium, and after the match. Many Syrian women were seen without head-covers cheering for their national team. This is despite the fact that it has been over 38 years that Iranian administration have barred Iranian women from entering any sporting arena mixed with men, and forbidden from watching men’s games.
Syrian women were without head-covers, an uncompromising enforcement by the Islamic government of Iran. Yet, none of the Iranian women, with headscarves, were allowed into the stadium. An unprecedented double-standard by football officials and government that had previously cited religious reasons for the forbiddance.
Yet, Syrian women, the majority of whom are Muslim, were allowed into the stadium, while the citizens of the host country were watching in remorse and anger behind the closed gates of the arena.
In addition to that, it was reported by iSport reporters, as well as activist Ghoncheh Ghavami, who was at the scene, that officers at Azadi Stadium entrance would allow Iranian women on condition of barring Syrian flag. Some Iranian women did just that just to be let in for the first time, while the majority of others were insulted by such action.
The eyewitness reports and images of Syrian women in the stadium sparked lament and fury on social media.
A day after the match, head of Iran Football Federation brushed off the controversial move and told reporters that “Iran does not have infrastructure capability to allow Iranian women into the stadium”, citing engineering obstacles to design separate entrance for men and women, and separate seating sections for men and women. A clear excuse, considering Syrian women walked into the stadium with existing infrastructure of the stadium.
All these showcase an utterly double-standard and discriminatory action by officials against female citizens of their own’s country while letting any other women foreign nationals into the stadium, just so that international press broadcast the images of women in freedom in Iranian stadiums.
Iran and Saudi Arabia are practically the only two countries amongst 211 FIFA member Associations who practice such ban on their female football fans.
Both countries’ discriminatory practice is against FIFA rule, which indicates: “Discrimination of any kind against any country, private person or group of people on account of race, skin colour, ethnic, national or social origin, gender, language, religion, political opinion or any other opinion, wealth, birth or any other status, sexual orientation or any other reason is strictly prohibited and punishable by suspension or expulsion.”
All these incidents occur clearly breaking FIFA rules, and yet justice is yet to be enforced by FIFA; An organization that itself too is marred in controversy and mismanagement.
Another controversy happened after the match. For weeks, Iran football officials had promised a celebration ceremony for the Iran national team in the last game against Syria on September 5 at Azadi Stadium, for a team that surely deserved appreciation, having sealed direct qualification to World Cup 2018 as the first Asian team – weeks in advance – while having the best defensive record among Asian opponents in qualifiers.
All these merits a simple appreciation at the very least. So, after the match, Iranian team players waited alongside the pitch for the celebration to begin. Football fans – men only – cheered for the ceremony to begin, but that just did not happen.
After about 20 minutes of waiting, players left the pitch furious over lack of appreciation and broken promises by Iranian football officials.
A stalemate against Syria at home, justice-hungry Iranian female fans behind closed doors, Syrian fans – both male and female – celebrating inside the stadium, and no appreciation for record-breaking Iranian team; there couldn’t be a more bitter and controversial finale of the qualifying games for Iran national team, as well as their supporters at home.