Tehran, Iran – A draw between the national football teams of Iran and South Korea has meant that both countries are one step closer to securing a spot in next year’s World Cup tournament.
The 1-1 result in Tehran on Tuesday kept Iran top of its Qatar 2022 Asian qualification group with 10 points, followed closely by South Korea with eight points.
But what happened off the pitch before the match proved just as important as the result, if not more so, as no spectators were allowed in the capital’s iconic Azadi stadium.
The stands were empty despite that, for weeks, Iran’s football federation had said it wanted about 10,000 fully vaccinated people – including women – to cheer on the national team at the stadium that can hold about 80,000 fans.
Those fans would have been the first image of relative normalisation as the country has curbed a fifth wave of the deadliest COVID-19 pandemic in the Middle East, which has killed more than 123,000 lives, according to official figures.
But even as vaccine imports and country-wide rollout have significantly accelerated in the past two months, more than 200 Iranians are still falling victim to the virus each day.
Moreover, under pressure from FIFA, football’s global governing body, Iranian authorities said they agreed that a number of women would also be allowed to watch the game in the stadium.
So when the football federation announced two days before the match that spectators would not be allowed in, it prompted a social media response from people who said the move may have been aimed at preventing women from entering the stadium.
The issue of allowing women into Iranian stadiums has for years been a point of contention and a constant source of disappointment for fans.
Women were banned from stadiums after the country’s 1979 Islamic revolution, something officials have said is to protect them from inappropriate behaviour by men.
But mounting pressure from FIFA and fans inside the country led to small victories for women in international matches.
In June 2018, a small number of women were allowed to enter the Azadi stadium – in separate seating arrangements from men – for the first time since the revolution to watch a crucial World Cup match between Iran and Spain, held in Russia, from monitors in the stadium.
Several more limited opportunities were provided, the last of which was in October 2019, when about 3,500 women watched a match where Iran beat Cambodia.
Meanwhile, women continued to be banned from all Iranian league matches, which were regularly held across the country with tens of thousands of male spectators.
No football matches have been held with the presence of fans at stadiums for the past year due to the pandemic.
Speculations about the match with South Korea only grew when top sport officials contradicted each other about why spectators were barred from watching the match at the stadium.
On Monday, Hassan Kamranifar, the secretary general of the football federation, told reports that the decision was an internal one, and authorities felt that filling up the stadium at this point could lead to more COVID-19 infections and damage the country.
But then minutes later, sport minister Hamid Sajadi took to the podium during the same event in Tehran and told reports that the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) has prohibited fans from cheering at the stadium.
“We had the necessary permits for 10,000 fans at the stadium and it would’ve been great for us because we wanted to send the message to the world that our vaccination efforts have been successful,” he said.
The AFC did not respond to a request for comment.
However, indoor cinemas across the country were allowed to air the match live on Tuesday.
Neither official commented on the presence of female spectators, or whether they would be granted access to stadiums in the future.
But Kamranifar told state television later on Tuesday that Iran’s league football matches – which are slated to begin in a week and do not allow female spectators – will soon make preparations to welcome fans.
He also said the football federation will work to host Iran’s future national team matches, which will start in about two months, “with conditions considered by FIFA”.