x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

In Iran, girls get their shot at goal

It is the second week of a training camp for Iran's under 14 women's national football team.

Iranian amateur football player Nilofar Bashir, 18, practicing in her room.
Iranian amateur football player Nilofar Bashir, 18, practicing in her room.

TEHRAN // Farazan Mehboudi, 13, hops through a succession of hoops laid out on the grass, weaves round four plastic posts, and then returns the ball thrown at her by the coach with a deftly-executed movement of her hijab-covered head. "Boodou!" cries the coach as the next girl runs in to position ? "faster". It is the second week of a training camp for Iran's under 14 women's national team. During breaks, the girls are giggly and excitable. But on the field, the young players, who have never had any formal training before, display intense discipline and focus. "The national camp is a holy place," said Razieh Giweh, a 12-year-old centre-back from north-eastern Iran. "We learn to play football seriously here." Most of the squad is drawn from small villages and towns outside of Tehran. For Farazan, it is her first trip to the capital. Football is not taught in girls' schools, but the women's section of the Iranian Football Federation is struggling to keep up with the explosion of grassroots enthusiasm for it. "We get 10 or 11 phone calls a day from parents saying their daughter is crazy about football, wanting to find out where she can play," said Mahdie Mohammad Khani, an assistant to the vice president of the federation. The federation's offices in each of Iran's 30 provinces select the most promising players from regional competitions and invite them to national training camp. "My brother is jealous," said Arzadeh Hosseini, 13, a right back from Mazandaran. The girls' passion for the sport is matched only by their uncompromising ambition. "I want to still be playing professional football when I'm 50," said Parnaz Zod-Hussein Ali, 14, a left midfield. Four years ago, there was no women's football in Iran. In spite of the conservative politics of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, under which many civil society organisations have had to scale back their activities, a few determined women have succeeded in levering open a space in to which thousands of young Iranians are now pouring. "It all began with futsal," said Faridee Shojaee, the vice president federation. Before the revolution, Ms Shojaee used to play for Estaqlal, one of Tehran's two football clubs. Today she wears a black chador rather than the headscarf favoured by many Iranian women, but her mannerisms have a certain ebullience that makes it easy to imagine her taking a corner. After the revolution in 1979, women's teams across the country were dissolved. "People felt that women couldn't play sports in Islamic dress," said Ms Shojaee. Around eight years ago, women's futsal (a kind of indoor football with five player teams), was tentatively re-established, demonstrating that it was possible for women to play effectively while still maintaining the required degree of bodily covering. Then in 2005, Iran received an invitation out of the blue to participate in the West Asian Women's Football Championship in Amman, Jordan. The federation decided to accept the challenge, but they needed government support. "People were worried that football was too violent," said Ms Shojaee, who has a PhD in sport physiology. "We had to send the government letters from doctors and psychologists proving that women were capable." Sharhrzad Mozafar, who was at the time the assistant coach to the national futsal team, then received a phone call from the federation. "They said 'can you put a football team together to go to Jordan in a month and a half?' and I said 'yes'. And they said 'Are you sure? If we go and lose all our games it will be a bad start for women's football.' And I said 'we will play well'." Glossy-haired, slender and without make-up, Ms Mozafar looks at least a decade younger than her 38 years. She belongs to Iranian football's lost generation of women, not old enough to have played before the revolution but too old to take advantage of the futsal spring. Although she played for the national volleyball team, football was always her passion, and she began coaching when futsal teams were re-established. "At first I thought maybe I was wrong," she said. "But then they got better. I worked on their minds more than tactics, we didn't have time for tactics. They were very motivated." The team went on to take second place, although Ms Mozafar's favourite moment of the tournament was not one of their wins. "It was when they first came out and lined the field and our national anthem was played. It was a special time for me, to see us there, the Iranian team, after 27 years." Four years on, women's football is expanding at an exponential rate, driven by huge demand. Last year there was a super league of six teams, this year, there will be 18. Katayou Owrang, the team doctor, speculates on why football is so popular among the younger generation of Iranian women. "In Iran, I think the most happy time for people between the ages of eight and 23 is when they're doing sport. There are no places for dancing." Girls are particularly restricted in what forms self-expression they can pursue, at least in public. But enter a female sports hall, such as the one in Nastaran Alley in West Tehran, and it offers a sense of the liberating potential of sport for young women. Behind three sets of heavy curtains, "to keep the men out", one woman observes, women walk around relaxed and bare-headed, chatting, stretching and sipping fruit juice. The Rahahan futsal club, who have just won the national championships, are practising and other athletes drift towards the touchlines to watch them. This space, however, is only allowed to stay open if it is rigorously divided from the rest of society. The authorities' response to an impromptu mixed football game which took place recently at Estaqlal club provides a stark reminder of what happens to anyone who tries to pull down the curtain: the women's team was dissolved. Women are still not allowed to attend football matches in Iran. The Under 14 team's coach, Leila Vaghari, only saw a live game for the first time last year when she was visiting London: Arsenal beat Tottenham 2-1. "It was amazing," she said, her eyes lighting up at the memory. The insistence on gender segregation not only frustrates women, it contributes to the ghettoisation of women's sport. The national team desperately needs more access to training fields to improve their speed, but, according to Ms Mozafar, there is little incentive for anyone to provide them with help. "Clubs are not interested in women's teams because there is no media coverage of their games." The new generation of female athletes, however, who have grown up playing futsal, are not interested in sport as some kind of consolation prize; they are interested in winning. "We trained our butts off to beat them," said Kat Khosroyar, an Iranian-American midfielder for the national team, recalling the home game against India after a 3-1 defeat in New Delhi in the 2007 Asia Cup. The Iranians had to collect three points to qualify for the finals, and were three goals ahead until India scored in the 80th minute. Then, 90 seconds in to injury time, Bayan Mahmoudi, the team's legendary striker, sprinted up the pitch and scored a fourth goal. "It was the best feeling!" said Ms Khosroyar. She is optimistic about the team's future prospects, in spite of the obstacles they have to contend with at home and abroad (Fifa dress regulations still exclude them from the World Cup). "It's just the beginning. The more people see us play, the easier it will be. You can't be scared of anything here, you've just got to do it." * The National