Iran’s Number One, Iran’s, Iran’s Number One…

Time to meet a fully-fledged international female footballer that you may not have seen before. The name Zahra Khajavi may not roll off the tongue of many Western Commentators, but this 21-year old Iranian goalkeeper is making big waves back home where she has become the international team’s number one…

It’s been a long time coming this article, what with the enforced break to all football through the Corona Virus outbreak, the need for some full-on language translation for this article and the day-to-day juggling we’re doing here at D2B Towers (along with thousands of other families, of course) between keeping the kids off the X-Box 24/7 to do… er… school work; engaging in some form of exercise and managing the ever-increasing needs of the day job. I should point out that I haven’t attributed any direct quotes to Zahra as communication was made with her via my Persian to English translator Reza Soltani. A massive thanks to Reza for all his help.

“Iran’s conservative religious precepts and controversial definition of women’s roles in society run up against Iranians’ paramount passion for the game of soccer.”

Tim Grainey, Beyond Bend it Like Beckham (2012)

Can We Make this ‘Interview’ Work?

Let’s start with a bit of background. I was holidaying on the Isle of Wight in late summer last year and was idly flicking through my WhatsApp over a pint when I saw a comment in the WFN – Women’s Football Network** from one Reza Soltani. A UEFA B level goalkeeping and outfield coach, Reza knows his Women’s Football. He’s worked with Brentford FC Women and FAWNL D1SE side Actonians.  He was exasperated about an emerging goalkeeping talent in the Middle East who had not received the recognition he believed her talent and effort had deserved.

Awards had been handed out that week to various male players in Iran for 2019 performance achievement, but international women’s keeper Zahra Khajavi had been overlooked. ‘Par for the course’, I thought.

I confess I was about to exit the group when, to my surprise, Zahra appeared herself to thank Reza for his kind words. I followed their dialogue for a few minutes and then decided to take the plunge and ask if I could put something on D2B about a player that many in the UK would have little, if any, knowledge of.

Both agreed. But several failed attempts via email put the article on the back burner. It turns out communicating by email from the UK to Iran is not that straightforward. Here is a country where restrictions on communications are laid down by the government’s Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, and where direct access to many mainstream global websites has been blocked (including social media behemoth Facebook).

Jump cut to a few weeks ago and Zahra appeared on the ‘Telegram’ app that WFN members now use. A second approach and a new WhatsApp group was created with Reza facilitating my Q&A and providing translation for Zahra and her mentor and goalkeeping coach from the U-19s international team Mohammad Habibi offering his insight. And here we are…

Football in Iran

Malavan (Bandar Anzali) Women in Training…

Football is generally considered to be Iran’s most popular team sport and has become an integral part of country’s sporting culture for many years (most notably since a France ‘98 World Cup appearance when their men beat the USA 2-1) along with basketball and volleyball, as well as polo, wrestling and weightlifting. Children play football at school, for organised clubs and on the streets.

And, in recent years, girls have been getting involved in a big way.  Despite some of what we in the West view as restrictions imposed on females wanting to play – such as the compulsory wearing of the hijab and full covering of arms and legs – more and more young women in Iran are taking up the sport, often finding their way to it via Futsal. 

Futsal, for the uninitiated, is typically played as an indoor, five-a-aside game on a hard court with a smaller, heavier ball. Goals are totted up for each team as usual, but the game also emphasises the importance of the player’s flair, creativity, and technique. To get a sense of how good Iranian players are at this brand of the game, they’ve won both of the Asian Federation’s Women’s Futsal Championships held to date – in 2015 and 2018.

Zahra – An Amazing Ten-Year Journey

Ok, ok… possibly Iran’s number twelve!! (Photo Source as per credit )

Born and raised in the Nahavand, situated in the North West of Iran, Zahra was no different in this respect. She started playing Futsal at around ten years old. By twelve she was playing for her first club team as an outfield player. She proved to be a natural talent and was picked for both Iran’s U-14 and U-16 national teams.

Working her way up from U-12s, through youth levels to U-23s, and on into senior top-flight football, Zahra has had spells with clubs including PAS Hamedan, Ashtrankooh Azna (I’ve come across three different spellings of this!), Rahyab Sanandaj and Iran’s six time national champions in women’s football: Shahrdari Bam. 

During this period of development her coaches spotted Zahra’s promise as a goalkeeper and, while she resisted at first, eventually she realised that her ability between the posts would present the best opportunity to fulfil her potential and play at the highest level. By U-19s level, Zahra was Team Melli Baanovaan goalkeeper.  

Since 2018, Mohammad Habibi has been the goalkeeping coach for Iran’s national women’s football team players including the 16-19 age groups. He has seen Zahra develop as a player from youth levels first-hand and is in no doubt about her ability:

“Zahra Khajavi, who is my goalkeeper in the adult team, is [the] clean sheet record holder in Iran.  In my idea, she is a very nice goalkeeper and really talented. She can progress more if she exercise correctly in her club.”

Mohammad Habibi via WhatsApp

Vochan Kordestan is her current club and it is here where she has had her greatest success as a player, cementing her place in Iran’s top-flight and securing the goalkeeper’s jersey with the national team.

It’s also where she achieved her proudest moment, breaking the record for the most consecutive minutes without conceding a goal. Having kept ten clean sheets on the spin, Zahra’s net needed to stay unbreeched for a further 35 minutes, going up against her former team and reigning champions Shahrdari Bam. By half time she would know that she had surpassed the shut-out record of Sepahan’s male goalkeeper Payam Niazmand. Just in time, too. Bam, an excellent side, scored five minutes after the break!

“Thank God for being able to make a solo success in a team sport. Thank you to all my executive staff and team for winning this record and thank you for fighting my feet [sic]. An honour that it is me that I upgrade a record that before me the Iranian gate elders had won this record. I hope that I can always be a useful person for the women’s football society. Thank you to those who are happy with their congratulation messages. Hoping for a better tomorrow…” *

zahrakhajavi_official via Instagram (28/12/2019) *Translated

The League

Shahrdari Bam – Six Time Winners of the Iranian Women’s League

Gaining the kind of audience traction that would allow women’s football to flourish globally has been up and down at best. The famous 99ers over in the States couldn’t sustain a league long term. England hosting the 2005 Euros generated buzz, but it would be fully six years until the FAWSL came into being. Arguably, the 2011 Women’s World Cup in Germany provided the pivot from which the sport’s profile began to creep painstakingly forward in public consciousness – helped by prodigious stars such as Marta, Homare Sawa and that Rapinoe / Wambach goal in extra time versus Brazil. Pro leagues have found their feet across Europe since then, and the USA was finally able to make the third attempt at their league structure stick, with the NWSL establishing itself in 2012.

It’s something of an eye-opener, then, that in Iran the Kowsar Women’s Football League has provided a topflight for the best female players since 2007 with several of the teams affiliated to a men’s club. Despite the league skipping the 2008-9 season and financial problems nearly bringing the organisation financially careering towards disaster in 2016, championships have been completed right up to last summer when Shahrdari Bam secured their sixth league crown.

Zahra, a full time University student, manages my expectations by explaining that the players don’t earn much money – certainly not what could be considered a living wage. But the top three divisions are paid something for their efforts which I take to mean that they get some expenses. It might not seem much, but in a country where there have traditionally been very rigid social and religious views on women’s place in society and limitations on communication between men and women this is a level of progression I had not expected.

Difficult Years Off-and-On Field

We just want to watch a game of football… easier said than done in 21st Century Iran.

The popularity of women’s football in Iran had been growing exponentially throughout the late 1960s and 1970s. But the 1979 Iranian (or Islamic) revolution was not kind to women who had previously enjoyed more opportunities to get out and join the workforce, earn money, be educated, and play sports. The imposition of a hyper-conservative brand of Sharia religious law meant that dictates were redrawn entirely, imposing full Islamic cover of women’s hair and bodies in public places as part of a segregation strategy designed to keep the genders apart and forcing women back into home-making roles. In 1981, this philosophy culminated in women being banned from attending football matches in stadiums, a decree that has held firm – with very minor exceptions – until just last year.

Then the worst of all tragedies played out. On 9 September 2019, Iranian football fan Sahar Khodayari, who became known globally as ‘Blue Girl’, died in hospital a few days after setting herself on fire outside a court in Tehran. The authorities had charged her with “appearing in public without a hijab” and she faced six months in prison after trying to enter Azadi Stadium dressed as a man, contravening the ban.

Like Zahra, Sahar was a passionate supporter of the club Esteghlal Tehran. It was an incident that shook the club at its foundations and the sport at large.

Football’s governing body, FIFA, had being making furtive noises suggesting that Iran would be thrown out of international competitions if it didn’t lift the ban and let women watch Iran’s World Cup qualifiers, but it was likely the mass public outcry, both in Iran and around the world, that persuaded Iran’s leaders to ‘soften’ their position and make, reportedly, 3,500 tickets available for women to attend the men’s international against Cambodia. These sold out in hours, although debate continues over how many of those fans got into the game.

There remains a very long road ahead. Following a friendly with Bolivia in October of 2019, which 150 or so “handpicked” female fans were allowed to attend, Iran’s Prosecutor General Mohammad Jafar Montazeri immediately reset the tone, stating that there would be no repeat and that this permissiveness would “lead to sin”. He further enraged activists and observers: “We first let women watch the World Cup on television, then we let them enter the stadiums to watch football games. Next, women will want to mix with men and watch the games together. We must not lose our religious faith, and we need to be wary of our social behaviour.”

So, one step forward and two steps back. Nonetheless, a month later, another selected group of approximately 850 women attended the Tehran derby between Esteghlal and Persepolis FC.

And controversies have not been confined to the terraces. former Iran Head Coach Maryam Irandoost recalls: “At the 2010 Olympics, FIFA demanded that the Iranians [female players] leave their ears and necks uncovered. Because the Iranian federation refused, they couldn’t play in the tournament.”

In October 2015 it was reported that the Iranian women’s team captain, Niloufar Ardalan, couldn’t compete because her husband refused to let her leave the country. Under Islamic law, she required permission from her husband to get her passport renewed and he wanted her home for their seven-year-old son’s first day at school.

But Zahra’s belief is that the situation is slowly improving for footballers and females generally with an ever-growing movement of young Iranian women battling bravely for new freedoms. She can play her part by fighting for the right to play the game she loves at the highest level. Her attitude is echoed across the nation. More women are going to university. More women are entering the civil service, and several women have even managed to navigate perilous political waters and make themselves electable to serve in the Iranian parliament.

Progression of the Women’s Game

Zahra Ghanbari in full flight. The Shahrdari Bam attacker is one of the players Zahra admires most in Iranian football.

Given the sheer difficulties that women have faced in Iran just to watch the sport let alone play it, it’s hard not to dwell and paint an entirely negative picture. But I’m mindful that Zahra is a football player first and foremost. Who are her favourite players? I half expect (or even hope for) a female star, but she goes for Barcelona’s Argentinian wizard Messi, perhaps making a subconscious connection with that futsal-style close control that she grew up with. Her goalkeeping inspiration is Bayern’s Manuel Neuer – the World Cup winning ‘sweeper keeper’ that Joachim Low once said was good enough to play in midfield for his country.

When asked who is the best player she has played against Zahra is seemingly tight lipped. There are lots of good players who have played against her. But reframing the question as who the best teammates are she has played alongside and she is happier to name Shabnam Behesht, a key player in the international squad since 2013, and skillful Shahrdari Bam attacker and goal scorer Zahra Ghanbari (pictured).

It’s not unfair to assume that futsal, prevalent since the early nineties, was better equipped to develop in Iran as a women’s sport because it has had the benefit of being played indoors where effective segregation controls could be put in place to prevent men from spectating.

I ask Reza, who holds level two Futsal coaching badges and works with Kent United and the keepers at Richmond, why he believes women’s participation in orthodox, outdoor football has grown. “All the sport in Iran now is very popular for women because in the past [Iran was] a little bit different culturally and they stop the women coming to play. Now it is different because 60-70% of Iranian women are attending university which means more teams are happening.”

So, does permitting women into higher levels of education correlate to a more general opening of minds socially? There are certainly more liberal thinkers making their way onto the Iranian political landscape, but the ultra-conservative faction still holds sway. Maybe it’s on the ground, then, where seismic changes can occur.

Reza: “Families are certainly a lot more supportive of their young women starting to play sports such as football and futsal.”

Mohammad Habibi too believes that the signs for progression continue to be positive for Iranian women’s football, not just on the field, but as a force for good in society generally:

“In my view, Iran’s Women’s football team has a lot of talents. In [my] experience, I have found that Iranian women are really interested in football and they are so intelligent. The [team] will progress a lot if they are organized well. The progress of football can bring happiness and excitement in family relationships and also help to increase women’s self-confidence socially.”

Mohammad Habibi, via WhatsApp

The Future

Former Iran Head Coach Maryam Irandoost – At ‘Discover Football’ in 2019.

Over many years, Maryam Irandoost has worked relentlessly in the battle to attain equal rights for women footballers in her country and globally. Now in her 41st year, the ex-Malavan player and manager is sensing that sea change is finally possible.

Speaking at last year’s tenth anniversary of the Discover Football Festival in Berlin, celebrating the women’s game, Irandoost was pleased to report that “men no longer say that women don’t belong on the football pitch. Progress is being made and there are a lot more opportunities and better player development. These opportunities didn’t exist for older women like myself.”

But she was also quick to point out that there remain big disparities. “We’d like to fly to [international] games like the men, instead of having to spend hours on a bus to get there. We can spend 40 hours on the road for an away match – 20 hours there, 20 hours back.” And unequal investment, pay and facilities aren’t just endemic in Iranian women’s football, Maryam acknowledges that these are global issues.

For Zahra Khajavi, well she has many playing years ahead of her but, longer term, she would love to get into coaching. Goalkeeping coaching? Possibly, but whatever she goes on to do it will be focused on passing on her passion, her knowledge and her experiences to other Iranian girls who want to play the women’s game whether as a profession, or simply for recreation.

Before all that, though, she needs to keep herself as fit and sharp as possible training as hard as she can in COVID-19 forced isolation ahead of the league resuming in (hopefully) June. The men’s IPL has got a tentative go ahead from the authorities – subject to stringent healthcare measures being in place. Zahra is positive that the women’s competition seems likely to follow.

Meanwhile Reza, my ever-willing translator and main point of contact for Zahra, continues to track her progress, perhaps with one eye on being able to find her a team in England? “I’ve been following Zahra’s career for many years. She is a very good goalkeeper and I hope one day she will play for a team in the West.”

Zahra Khajavi – Achieved more minutes without conceding than any other keeper in Iran.

“If you come once to Iran and walk in Tehran’s streets, you’ll see that women are fighters here. Every day they are fighting for their rights. They are fighting against compulsory hijab. They are fighting for going to school, to universities, for their jobs; everything. You have to be a fighter because there’s lots of walls in front of you. They want women to be a mother, to stay inside cooking, to be a wife and these kinds of things. But the young generation are vocal, and they really want to claim their rights. And now, with the stadiums, it’s some sort of a symbol for women—if they can go to the stadiums, it means they break one of the walls in front of them. It will happen. You cannot stop us.”

Open Stadiums Movement, The Guardian On Line

**  You can contact the Women’s Football Network through https://twitter.com/WomensFootyNet. There are a whole host of players, coaches, consultants and writers from all over the globe connected directly through the Telegram App.

Earlier this year, we reached number 29 on the Feedspot Top 40 list of Women’s football blogs. No one was more surprised than us here at D2B Towers; there’s so much other good stuff out there. Anyhoo, check out the link, there’s a heap of great blogs and websites written by people who really know their stuff and have an infectious passion for the women’s game…

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