Fake tickets, scuffles at the door and tears of joy for female fans
Under pressure from FIFA, the Iranian Football Federation yesterday partially relented on its decades-old policy of excluding Iranian women from football stadiums. A small number of female fans were allowed into the Azadi Stadium to watch the match between Esteghlal and Mes Kerman, which ended in a 1-0 victory for Esteghlal.
On the eve of the World Cup, Mirshad Majedi, the acting head of the Federation, was at an impasse. Something had to be done to appease FIFA on the issue of gender discrimination or Iran risked being suspended before the main event. He first asked Persepolis FC to make arrangements for women to attend Pro League matches, but the club were apparently “not ready” to do so. So he turned to Mostafa Ajorlou, the CEO of Esteghlal.
IranWire revealed earlier this week how Ajorlou, an IRGC commander, was tasked squarely with vetting and pre-approving female fans to attend Thursday’s match. This was to be done by linking their national ID numbers to the online ticketing system. In the end, about 2,000 women were there on the stands on Thursday, of course amply captured by the cameras of state television.
But there was, inevitably, more than that. In this report, we’ll review what’s known so far about the events of the past week and a half, from when tickets went on sale to the final whistle.
If at first you don’t succeed
Last week, Esteghlal CEO Mostafa Ajorlou generously offered Majedi that 500 women be pre-approved to attend Azadi Stadium. Their ID codes, he said, could be registered on the ticket sales website, allowing them to buy a ticket where other women would be blocked.
IranWire published an exclusive report on this case in Persian on Sunday August 21 (and in English translation on Monday). Then on August 23, the Ministry of Sports rejected Ajorlou’s proposal out of hand. Instead, it was decided to open the ticketing system for a very limited window this week: enough time for some women, but not many, to have access.
On the afternoon of Wednesday August 24, the women’s section of the website was activated for only 15 minutes. Female Esteghlal fans in particular, who had been told for days that they might have a chance at a spot, had waited for this moment and refreshed the page for hours.
Ultimately, in those 15 minutes, the website’s own records indicate that 1,000 women managed to purchase a ticket. The same day, 2,000 were however present on the bleachers. This indicates that although Ajorlou’s initial plan failed, approximately 1,000 women were screened or pre-approved for entry, and/or did not purchase a ticket in the usual manner.
A black market at the gates
At 4 p.m. on Thursday, the gates to parking lot number 21 at the Azadi Stadium opened for women who had managed to obtain tickets. Among those waiting at the gates, the makeup was decidedly mixed. Those lucky enough to have secured a ticket online were present alongside others who had received one through Esteghlal FC, and a third group who said they had bought tickets from the books earlier in the day for 200,000 to 350,000 tomans. [$8-$12] right there at the gates.
Arrival of pre-approved women
A lady on the east side of the stadium, eyewitnesses told IranWire, kept repeating the same phrases over a loudspeaker. Welcoming the women, she asked them to enter the stadium with tickets in hand, and if they did not have tickets, not to stop outside the gates. She also repeatedly called on women to “observe the Islamic hijab”.
By 6:30 p.m., almost everyone who had purchased tickets had entered the stands. About 30 people who hadn’t made it ended up sitting outside the door, still hoping to find a way in somehow. They then saw the inevitable Melli team bus, Iran’s national football team, approach parking lot number 21.
Inside the bus were the national youth team players, dressed in their red jerseys, and the team’s technical staff. Another bus stopped behind them. The gates opened and a large group of women disembarked, walked through the parking lot and walked straight into the stadium without showing a ticket.
These women would have been people selected from within the Esteghlal fan association or close to Esteghlal’s management. Elsewhere before kick-off, another woman attempted to enter the stadium and was blocked; Parviz Boroumand, former Esteghlal goalkeeper and now official at Azadi Stadium, personally intervened to let her in. Those who did not have these links remained outside.
The final commotion
The game was to start at 7 p.m. Police addressed the women still crowding outside through loudspeakers: “Ladies! Under no circumstances are you allowed to enter without a ticket. Respect your hijab and disperse behind the door” . This too repeated itself several times.
Policewomen approached the women left outside and tried to guide them with their hands. One resisted, saying officers weren’t allowed to touch them. Telling the others to stay put, she pointed out aloud that if they left as instructed, they wouldn’t have a chance to watch the game.
A policeman then got angry and shouted at him: “Get away from the front door! Hang on those trees if you want, but don’t stay here! You are not allowed to enter.”
As the argument escalated, an officer pointed to the ticket sellers who were still hanging around the gates. “They sell tickets there,” she said. “Go buy a ticket so you can get in.”
There was consternation in the group. A young woman with a blue Esteghlal flag wrapped around her demanded to know, “Are you trying to get us out of here with that trick?”
Then, however, a man approached them from behind. “I have a few tickets,” he announced. “Anyone want some?” The award was given at 350,000 and repeated several times, in front of the officers. A Dezful woman complained that she had bought one from her earlier for 250,000; at the door, she said, she was told it was “not valid.”
This time victory
It was 8 p.m. After much discussion among officials, the handful of women without tickets – or who had been sold fake tickets – were belatedly allowed into the stadium to watch the match. They were lined up and their national identity cards and personal belongings were checked on entry.
After walking through the tunnel, a woman in the group of around 30 grabbed the railings and stared at the pitch with tears streaming down her face. Another, a young Esteghlal fan with blue lipstick, quavered, “I can’t believe my dream has come true.”
The game ended 90 minutes later with Esteghlal winning. After the final whistle, the players made their way to the women’s stands and greeted their supporters. The entire stadium was on their feet, applauding a glorious moment – a moment that should never have taken 40 years, or that much heartache, to accomplish.