Football for all and the Iranian Women who fight for it. By Joe Harman.
It’s June 25th 2018, Iran are playing Portugal in the World Cup, and for many Iranian women, it is a most precious, fleeting chance for them to watch Team Melli compete at the highest level, in a non segregated stadium.
Far away, in Iran, in the country’s capital city there is also something special happening. In the Azadi stadium, for the first time since October 5th 1981, women are also watching their beloved Team Melli alongside men, albeit on a big screen. This act of non- segregated viewing of a sporting event may seem trivial to many, but for Iranian women it is a major breakthrough and one that has seen tremendous acts of courage and bravery in a quest for gender equality.
Prior to the Iranian Revolution in 1979, women enjoyed far greater freedom under the Pahlavi era as football had come to replace wrestling as the nation’s most popular sport. This being due in a large part to Reza Shah Pahlavi’s time spent in Switzerland studying, where he had fallen in love with the game, and the roles of missionaries and militarism in the early 19th century.
The Shah’s era, which ended with his abdication in 1941 also coincided with the 1936-1941 Women’s Awakening, in which women campaigned against the wearing of the chador, a protest that incensed much of the religious contingent within the country. With the fall of the Pahlavi era in 1979, so came a more aggressive interpretation of the Muslim faith which heavily affected the female population of Iran.
Football was the first sport to become a privilege for men only, for it was deemed an unsuitable environment for women to experience. Later, in 2014 volleyball and basketball would be forced to adopt the same principles.
In 2005, a group of women, led by Sarah (who’s true identity must remain private), chose to take a stand against what they believed was inherently wrong, setting up @openstadiums. A campaign led by Iranian women aiming to end gender segregation in sport and allow them to freely attend stadiums. If football is for all, then she and her friends would call on the powers of the Iranian F.A and FIFA to seek change for Iranian women to experience football just like her male counterparts.
Sarah is football fan and her voice ripples with pride as she recounts her experience of the Iran vs Portugal game. She tells me of her friends, some who have been arrested and detained for their protests, who stood and cheered in the Azadi Stadium at the very same moment that she did the very same in the Mordovia Arena. She wishes they could have experienced the match together.
Despite, FIFA’s statutes denouncing any form of segregation, Iran remain the sole country which denies women of its own nationality (foreign women are allowed) the right to watch a game of football in the company of men. This also applies to basketball and volleyball. The lowest moment for Sarah and the @openstadiums’ movement came in March 2018 when Persepolis payed Esteghlal in the Tehran Derby, where a terrible irony played out, for as GIanni Infantino sat inside a stadium, which name means freedom, outside approximately 30 women, who were attempting to enter stadium, were detained by police and relocated to the Voraza detention centre, where they were released at 8pm. The match was at 10am. The youngest female was 13 years old. These women and girls are forced to extreme measures, such as disguising themselves as men, with fake beards and short hair to experience something that many of us around the world take for granted.
The actions on that day prompted Sarah to write an open letter to Mr Infantino calling for an end to the gender apartheid that exists within Iran regarding sport.
Whether Infantino’s response will prove to be a turning point is something to be viewed with a degree of scepticism. During a press conference after the Tehran Derby, when a journalist posed the question of ending gender apartheid, the interview was immediately cut short and faded out live on television.
For Sarah, the fight continues and if the World Cup has achieved anything, it as allowed her to spread the word of @openstadiums to journalists, activists and football fans around the globe. Twitter has played a enormous role in her ability to broaden her activism but also remain safe and anonymous in a country where political protests and stances against the government are dealt with brutally, as the Green Movement in 2009 found out. A hope is that the outside pressures and the continual work by Sarah and her counterparts, forces President Rouhani to cede ground and allow Iranian women the same rights in sport as men.
Until that happens, we as part of the football landscape must do what we ca to support Sarah throughout her campaign. Follow her on @openstadiums , write a letter to your F.A asking them what role are they playing in this fight and remember that football is for all.
Gold for the Soul-Wembley in Absentia. A long read by Joe Harman.
As recent as last week, the FA,s chairman, Greg Clarke, tiptoed further towards signalling the confirmation of Wembley’s sale which has been looming over English football since it was first proposed last month.His report issued to members of the FA board went some way to address possible concerns that are being voiced throughout the community, but perhaps less assurance and more transparency is required in order for this momentous act to be better digested.
When Wembley is finally sold, and the money is finally spent, one hopes that it it invested wiser than previous attempts that the F.A have when it comes to managing grand financial decisions, as we can remember that the 1991’s Blueprint for Football heralded the dawn of the Premier League and saw the F.A cede it’s last vestiges of power to those who now wield it with untouchable authority.
At its inception Wembley Stadium only came into existence, due to its original concept being that of a sports stadium as opposed to a football stadium.
Sport England (previously the Sports Council for Great Britain) had emerged in 1994 to provide funding, through the National Lottery, for sporting ventures throughout the country. At the top of its applications pile, were those seeking stadium build requests and in 1996 it was agreed that the Wembley site had been chosen for a new sports stadium to take the place of the National Football Stadium. A deciding factor in the vote going in the F.A’s favour was that it was initially promoted as a sports stadium inclusive of a running tack, with the overall intent to create a central home for football, rugby and athletics.
As with all Sport England grants the build would be financed through a combination of public and private finding with the F.A undertaking a immense lending process in order to finance the cost of the rebuild, with them contributing 19.5% of investment with the rest broken down into a series of public grants and loans. SPort England grant of £120 million remains the largest single grant issued by the body since its inception.
Source: National Audit Office
In September 2000, it was agreed by WNSL (Wembley National Stadium, Limited) that a contract for the building of the new Wembley site should be given to Multiplex, a large scale Australian construction company, at the time Ken Bates was chairman of WNSL and it has been documented that Bates had previous working relations with Multiplex when they had been given a contract to rebuild part of Stamford Bridge in 1997. This was after Multiplex had approached WNSL in May 1999, where a proposition to be the preferred contractor was made and agreed upon.
As early as December 2000, it was clear that the WNSL were struggling to raise the capital needed to continue with the build and with a limited pool of financial resources and the F.A’s failure to provide a parent company guarantee, the entire process appeared to be in jeopardy before it had even truly begun, highlighted by the fact that WNSL had failed to action a repayment to Sport England regarding the reappraisal of the athletics track, resulting in a £20 million deduction in the initial grant.
In June 2001, following the F.A’s application for additional funding, Patrick Carter was summoned by the Secretary of State for the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, to investigate the entire build process and assess whether there were grounds for funding to be issued. Mr Carter, eventually submitted two reports to the SoS, with the 2001 report being classified as an interim and his final report being issued in October 2002, in which he observed several misgivings regarding the build process. One being the initial tendering process in which Multiplex had gained the contract, as there had been no formal bidding process but something akin to a gentleman’s agreement between the two parties. This act in itself is one that is deserving of greater scrutiny and one which resulted in a further enquiry on behalf of the DCMS, who sanctioned David James to investigate whether the tendering process, or lack thereof, had broken any legislative rules, after Tropus Limited (a management consultant company who were involved in the Wembley build) voiced concerns about Multiplex’s procurement of the contract.
Unfortunately, David James report is not publicly available and therefore much of his report is through second hand recounts, but what can gleaned is that, there was an acknowledgment that the procurement between Multiplex and WNSL was not up to the normal tendering/contractual standards that would be expected for a contact of this size, however, due to the time that had elapsed it would be counterproductive to re-tender the contact at the current time. The report, which was heavily censored, indicated that WNSL had “conducted parallel procurement processes for the same contract therefore making it difficult to have a fully competitive process”.
Throughout these reports, one wonders whether the F.A had bitten off more than it could chew finding itself in a position where, through sheer bloody mindedness, a national stadium was finally completed in 2007, but to what cost?
With the promise of £600 million being heralded as a life changing investment for grassroots football, plus the £400 million that seems to be tied to Club Wembley revenue, there exists a heady dizziness that can cloud judgement and further questioning. Whilst the amount that Wembley is possibly being sold for is splashed across the media, there is the issue of the outstanding debt still owed by the F.A in the form of bank loans and public grants, and although a heavy portion of the grants have been amortised against the asset (that being Wembley), will that arrangement be maintained of the stadium ceases to be an asset of Wembley.
With regards to Club Wembley and its £400 million revenue stream, surely this is tied directly to the events held at the stadium, one being the NFL games that will be now overseen by Shahid Khan. With Club Wembley generating approximately £50-£55 million per year, it will be interesting to see how this is impacted and where Mr Kahn will look to procure his own revenue streams.
The final question over whether the sale of Wembley is nothing more than a convenient opportunity for the F.A to rid themselves of a labyrinthine financial quagmire, is the report commissioned by Greg Clarke’s rather noisier predecessor, Greg Dyke, whose bold statements appeared to have no end. The 2014 report , aimed to map out a pathway for improved grassroots football, principally through football hubs, 30 hubs for 30 cities, all to be completed by 2020.
Currently, only Sheffield, which was the original test site, has two Parklife Hubs and with a proposed cost of £4 million per site ( the aim is for each city to have two sites), the total outlay for the concept to be rolled out across the country stands to cost around £210 million. Additional to this, was a promise to dramatically increase the number of qualified coaches throughout the country, which in itself would require a significant investment.
Dyke’s report was rather loose with its financial specification in regards to how the the project will be financed and although it may be considered rather cynical, there appears to be a strong correlation between a project that is struggling to be fully implemented in the time promised, and an asset that is failing to provide the long term financial impetus that it had hoped.
No one working within football can deny that any funds channelled to grassroots level is a beautiful thing, but the worry is that when the adrenaline hit of funds is gone, where do we go from there?