Debutants who dare to dream, an Iran football story

14 countries spurned their offer for friendlies but coach Maryam Irandoost says India's first opponents are eyeing an Asian Cup knockout berth.
Iranian women’s football: Mystery to the world, full of peculiar juxtapositions.  PREMIUM
Iranian women’s football: Mystery to the world, full of peculiar juxtapositions. 
Published on Jan 19, 2022 09:37 PM IST
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BySharda Ugra

Of the 11 overseas teams at the AFC Women’s Asian Cup, one name caused instant curiosity. Iran. Debutants. The stories heard around football and Iranian women most recently were over their battle to watch men’s matches live. Then there was the tragedy of “Blue Girl” Sahar Khodayari, the Esteghlal fan who committed suicide while being tried for, well, trying to enter a stadium disguised as a man. 

Who are these Iranian women who dare to actually play football? How had they blindsided everyone by qualifying for the biggest Asian women’s competition in their fourth attempt? In October, Iran knocked out favourites Jordan on penalties to make it to India. There’s a You Tube highlights video of the women - clad head to toe in white, hijabs, full-sleeve jerseys, and shorts over tights - tackling, defending, sprinting and going toe to toe with the Jordanians. 

Other than being a mystery to the outside world, Iranian women’s football is full of peculiar juxtapositions. The national team had no formal football for two years and qualified for the Asian Cup, after roughly six months in training. They had no pre-tournament friendlies in the run up to India. The Women’s Asian Cup is their biggest event ever but their matches will not be telecast on Iran’s state-run TV channels due to a law that does not allow showing women's bodies on screen. Iranian female athletes can train and compete, but in women-only parks and stadia, neither supervised nor watched by men. 

Information about them on the English-language internet is scant. Wikipedia says that an Iranian women’s team had been formed in 1976, but after the “Revolution” football was banned and Iran’s national women’s team was only “re-founded” in 2005. Iranian-American Katayoun Khosrowyar, a player in the 2005 team and the junior national coach in 2019 was Iran’s famous female footballing face for the western world. Going down her trail proved unfruitful. 

In this Asian Cup, the most prominent Iranian figure is their tremendously-named coach Maryam Irandoost, daughter of former player and coach Nosrat Irandoost. On an AFC video, Ms Irandoost promises that given proper support, her team could reach the women’s World Cup final in five years. Still, this was not enough information about India’s first Asian Cup opposition on Thursday. 

After days of emailing, trawling and trolling various corners of Iranian football, S Abdolhamid Ahmadi, a Tehran-based sports journalist, sent across Persian links of ISNA (Iranian Students News Agency) reports about the Iranian women’s team. Tehran Times was a diligent keeper of record: a 10-day training camp in Charleroi, Belgium was cancelled, the team trained at home on Kish Island before travelling to India. Irandoost said that no pre-match friendlies could be organised because requests for practice fixtures against 14 countries had been turned down. “They didn’t accept our request since Iran’s women’s football team are not a strong team but I believe in my girls and we are looking for a place at the competition’s knockout stage.” 

On BBC Persian Instagram, there came a video of the women in rousing chorus on their last night in camp, singing, ‘Naame Javide Vatan’, a popular song about the Homeland, full of glory and of course death. ISNA said midfielder Elham Farahmand will be travelling to India with her five-month-old baby and her mother. Armywoman Farahmand is wife of Hossein Papi, former professional and Iranian junior international. Had she been from an English-speaking country, she would’ve been a superstar. 

At this point, Payam Younesipour, the Vienna-based sports editor of the news agency IranWire became my guide through what he calls the “closed island” on which Iranian women footballers live and play. The Iranian national women’s football which was “reborn” in 2005 has been “shut down” several times again. It was Younesipour who revealed that there had been no formal or informal football for the national squad from 2019 to 2021 and they had come through to the Asian Cup on mere months of training. 

During those two years in limbo, Iran were thrown off the FIFA ranking list but today are ranked 70. It took pressure from FIFA and AFC on the Iranian federation to get the Iranian women’s team moving again. The “gap years” president of the Iranian Football Federation Mehdi Taj currently serves as AFC vice-president. 

The team’s mere-months turnaround, said Younesipour, was the result of Iranian women being connected internationally, because of the national women’s premier league competition called the Kowsar League, now in its 15th year. “The league is dynamic and established… there are foreign camps and contacts with level one and two teams in Asia and Europe.” Current midfielder Yasaman Farmani plays for Charleroi in the Belgian Women’s Super League. Kerman province is seen as the centre of Iranian women’s football due to two club teams, in the municipalities of Bam and Sirjan, which offer healthy financial support to the game. 

But Kowsar league matches are never filmed, let alone broadcast. Younesipour said that the Ministry of Intelligence had persecuted women who had broadcast the competition live on their Instagram pages. Football is still not taught in Iranian girls’ schools, the players coming through academies, but futsal, which began in 2001, is huge. Today, Iran are two-time Asian women’s futsal champions. 

Women’s football was banned when the “Islamic Republic” was established in 1979 but even then, Younesipour says, “Iranian girls had played football illegally in the streets.” It is as if the spirit of Iranian women’s football - or should that be Iranian women themselves - cannot be crushed, never mind extinguished.  

Khosh amadid, khaharan. Welcome, sisters. 

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