FIFA World Cup: Iran Breaks Free in Russia and Celebrates With Its Women

In Iran, women are not allowed by law to watch football and wrestling inside the arena. But on Thursday, Samira Shirmardi was in St. Petersburg to cover her first ever football match.

This article is part of a series from Russia that analyses the socio-political issues surrounding the World Cup. Over the next month, with a combination of perspectives and reporting from the ground, overlooked and underplayed themes in football will be carried to the surface on The Wire.

St. Petersburg, Russia: Until she entered the Krestovsky Stadium in St. Petersburg on Friday, Samira Shirmardi had never been to a football game. She is a sports writer from Tehran but in the 17 years of her profession, she had watched football only on TV. When I ask her how she goes about her work in Iran, Samira says that she had cultivated contacts over time and the players speak to her now.

For those who enter sports journalism, attending a match is central to their practice. If you are not at the game, there is much that you miss out. Television coverage only offers an incomplete picture. Samira, unfortunately, has grown accustomed to that. In Iran, by law, women are not allowed to watch football and wrestling inside the arena.

On Thursday, however, she was in St. Petersburg to cover her first ever football match. A World Cup encounter, no less. Samira is the only female writer from Iran for the tournament in Russia. Team Melli was to open its campaign against Morocco, a key game before tougher assignments against Spain and Portugal.

At the final whistle, the press enclosure where Samira and her male colleagues were sitting erupted in joy. The stadium reverberated with loud cheering as Iran had scored a late goal to win the match. It was Team Melli’s second victory at the World Cup. Twenty years had passed since Iran’s only win in the tournament’s history. That victory was made famous by its loaded political and cultural significance as the vanquished opponent was the US at the 1998 World Cup in France. However, as coach Carlos Quieroz reminded everyone after the match on Friday, the latest success is equally significant.

“Teams do not want to play against us. We don’t have proper camps, pitches or preparation. I think it’s my duty to say this in front of you, let us play football,” he said. “Let us enjoy football like other nations. They just want to express themselves and play football. The [US] sanctions have consequences. The main value of FIFA is to keep politics apart but this is not what is going on. My players showed today that they are as good as any other nation’s footballers.”

Another consequence of the reimposition of sanctions, following the US’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal in May, was Nike’s decision to pull out of a shoe sponsorship deal with the Iranian national team earlier this month. This hurt Iran’s preparations for the World Cup as last-minute replacements had to be found. Quieroz termed the decision “arrogant” when Nike said it was doing so because it was an American company.

Since then, there has been a huge backlash in Iran against the sporting merchandise giant. In St. Petersburg, every Iranian fan I spoke to could barely conceal their disgust for Nike. One middle-aged supporter, Pejman from Washington, Seattle, left nobody guessing about his views.

“They are making everything political. It is a very cheap decision. I used to wear  Nike boots but I threw them away. I wear these now,” he said, pointing at his running shoe. When I asked him which brand they were, he responded, “I don’t know but they are not Nike.”

The cancelled sponsorship deal aside, the sanctions have brought hardships for travelling fans as well. Less than a month before arriving in Russia, those who lived in Iran realised that their expenses had risen by 50% as the rial’s value had dipped sharply. While a majority of the fans at the World Cup are relatively well off – from Tehran or based abroad – it still represents a significant challenge for them to follow the Iranian football team wherever they play.

But it is a testament to the popularity enjoyed by the players that Iranian fans have turned out in impressive numbers. Some of their burden was certainly eased by the Russian government’s decision to waive visa fees and make public transport free for visiting supporters. But the joys brought by Iranian fans to this World Cup have been unmatched till now. Loud singing and chanting by the Team Melli faithful has been a common sight on the streets of Moscow and St. Petersburg over the past week.

The continued support for Iranian footballers is also a reflection of the relationship they share with the public. Shockwaves were sent around the country last year when skipper Masoud Shojaei requested President Hassan Rouhani to allow women to enter the football stadium. He later revealed the full content of his conversation on camera: “Many, many women in Iran love to watch football matches played by men. If it is agreed to allow women in, a stadium should be built with the capacity of 200,000, because just as many women as men will be there.”

For now, however, Iranian women can attend football matches only abroad. Even though the national team has improved considerably under Quieroz – Iran is playing in successive World Cups for the first time after an unbeaten qualifying campaign for Russia, while many players now ply their trade with clubs in Europe – female fans are deprived of the opportunity to follow their favourite side, notwithstanding their increasingly vocal opinions. To circumvent the law, women are forced to look for unusual solutions, like sporting a fake beard.

Jafar Panahi’s 2006 film Offside offered a fictional account on the same lines, featuring a group of female fans masquerading as boys while they tried to enter the Azadi Stadium, Iran’s national football stadium in Tehran that can house 100,000 people. Its director has been in jail for the last eight years, arrested on the charge of seditious writing. The current atmosphere in Iran does not suggest much has changed, even though President Rouhani promised Shojaei last year that he had a plan for allowing women into football stadiums.

Typically, FIFA’s current regime has kept silent on the issue. No pressure has been exerted on the Iranian state for its exclusionary law – nor, for that matter, as there been any action taken against those countries that refuse to play Iran owing to its international isolation. Although FIFA often claims that it does not mix sport and politics, it is clear from its actions that it does not mix sport with politics where its own politics is threatened, which is the politics of global corporations for whom business concerns are above everything else. The same goes for Nike, which failed to look beyond its own narrow interests when it pulled out of the sponsorship deal with Iran.

Yet, as the people witnessed on Thursday, the dedication of the Iranian side and its fans runs deep. It is interesting to note that Iran’s tryst with the World Cup is inextricably linked with sanctions. Its first appearance in the tournament was in 1978, only months before the Islamic Revolution that brought punitive action on the state. Team Melli has forever lived on the margins of football’s greatest show.

Iranian fans often like to recall the defeat of the US at the 1998 World Cup because it was a rare occasion that evoked a mass outpouring of happiness, with approximately a million people on the streets that night. Thursday can be an addition to that delightful memory. When the ball struck the net with only seconds to go, the shouts of joy from Iranian fans reflected the catharsis of the moment. This was not merely satisfaction at winning a match; the moment also revealed the fallacy of isolating of Iran on the international stage.

Iran and its faithful band of supporters have shown that they belong in football’s grandest spectacle. Now, if the World Cup does bring countries together, like it is often claimed, Team Melli has an opportunity to further bridge the gap.

Priyansh is an independent writer based in New Delhi. He tweets @GarrulousBoy.