LONDON: Iran has been accused of using coronavirus as a cover for ignoring ultimatums from football’s governing body to allow women to attend football matches after all but one of Wednesday’s Iranian Pro League matches were played behind closed doors.
The president of the Iran Football League Organization, Soheil Mehdi, announced that no spectators would be allowed entry to stadia except to attend Persepolis’ match with Sanat Naft Abadan FC, citing concerns over COVID-19 as the reason.
“Unfortunately, it is not possible,” he said, while naming the Ministries of Sports and Health as responsible for all decisions on Pro League stadia reguluations. “These two institutions are evaluating the best model for separating spectators in stadiums.”
Fans, angry at the decision, have questioned the coronavirus justification given fans of Esteghlal were allowed into the Azadi Stadium only last week to watch their match against Nassaji Mazandaran.
Those in attendance said the Esteghlal supporters did not have to provide proof of a ticket or a COVID-19 vaccination and were simply let in on matchday.
FIFA has consistently put pressure on the Iranian regime to allow both men and women into stadiums to watch games, and has threatened the country’s football authorities with suspension if women were barred entry.
In 2019, president Gianni Infantino issued a statement saying FIFA’s position was clear and firm. “Women have to be allowed into football stadiums in Iran,” he said.
In September, Infantino told the head of the Football Federation of the Islamic Republic of Iran (FFIRF) Shahaboddin Azizi Khadem, that the regime had to allow women into the stadium to watch Iran’s 2022 World Cup qualifier against South Korea on Oct. 12.
Having previously confirmed 10,000 vaccinated supporters would be allowed to attend, the FFIRF changed its mind two days before the match and announced it would be played with no spectators.
Minister of Sports and Youth Hamid Sajjadi blamed the Asian Football Confederation (AFC)’s rules surrounding coronavirus protocols for the decision, despite FFIRF secretary-general Hassan Kamranifar saying FIFA and AFC had nothing to do with the late turnaround.
Iranian women were allowed to attend a football match for the first time in decades in 2019, during a game between Iran and Cambodia, but the ban was reinstated after the accession of hardliner president Ebrahim Raisi.
And the Islamic Revolutionary Guards-affiliated FARS News Agency recently called FIFA a “politicized” and “Zionist” organization and described Infantino as “a slave ready to suppress the Palestinians,” in reference to discussions surrounding Israel possibly hosting the 2030 World Cup.
“I hope FIFA is not fooled and follows up on this issue. This is a ploy,” Faezeh Hashemi, daughter of late President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, said. “Coronavirus is an excuse. They wanted to prevent women from going to the stadium, and they used coronavirus as an excuse.”
Social media users in Iran have been quick to highlight the recent stark contrast with Saudi fans — both male and female — who were in attendance at the Prince Faisal Bin Fahad Stadium in Riyadh as newly-crowned Asian champions Al-Hilal took on reigning Iranian champions Persepolis in the quarterfinal of the AFC Champions League on Oct. 16 en route to the title.