“Nobody was expecting such a great outcome, so everyone was quite shocked and surprised,” Azam Sanaei told Al Jazeera, in what can only be described as an understatement.
The 34-year-old is the captain and assistant coach of Iran women’s ice hockey team that came so close to becoming champions of Asia and Oceania last month.
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The team did not even exist three years ago, but now looks like it could be a force to be reckoned with.
In May, Iran travelled to Bangkok to play in the IIHF Women’s Asia and Oceania Championship for the first time.
Iran started the eight-nation tournament with a 17-1 demolition of India, followed by even more emphatic wins over Kuwait (20-0) and Kyrgyzstan (26-0). They beat the United Arab Emirates 14-0 in the quarters and Singapore 3-0 in the semis.
Iran’s run was ended by the host nation in the final. The score was 1-1 for much of the game before Thailand – roared on by a big and partisan crowd – pulled away in the closing stages to win 3-1 and take the gold medal.
Still, silver was still a fine reward for the women from Iran.
“It was our first official Asian ice hockey championship experience,” Sanaei said. “All our competitors had much more experience in ice hockey than us, so even getting to the tournament was a huge step. It was the sweetest feeling and proudest moment to get to the final and take second place.”
Sanaei’s teammate Fatemeh Esmaeili, the competition’s leading scorer with 17 goals, told Iranian television that the home crowd and Thailand’s experience had made the difference.
“We were really shocked at the beginning of the final match because we had never played in such an atmosphere.”
‘An incredible achievement’
For Sanaei, the journey to playing in the final began when she started in-line skating as a young girl, a popular activity in Iran. At the age of 14, she started playing in-line hockey, a sport not so common in her homeland.
“Hockey and ice hockey are not popular in Iran at all, they are [among] many sports that not a lot of people know about.” She felt comfortable with a stick in her hand and was also interested in ice hockey, but until recently there was no international standard ice rink in Tehran.
That changed in 2019 with the opening of the Iran Mall in the capital and the beginnings of a team that transitioned from in-line hockey to the colder kind. “From then on, our ice hockey practices started,” she said.
The team, she said, practised day and night in a bid to close the gap with more established ice hockey nations.
The onset of the COVID pandemic meant the women had to wait for their first opportunity to play other countries. In January, they finally played their first international games in Russia where they reached the final of a five-team Islamic Countries tournament.
Then came the trip to Thailand, which the women had to finance themselves.
“Around six months ago our federation became part of the Skiing federation which had no budget for ice skating so we had to pay for everything including tickets and visa fees ourselves,” said Sanaei.
Given all the obstacles, finishing second in a major international tournament turned heads inside and outside Iran.
“It is an incredible achievement for the Iranian team to perform so impressively, indeed one might even say that such success is unprecedented,” Simon Chadwick, professor of sport and geopolitical economy at SKEMA Business School in France, told Al Jazeera.
The team also reached another milestone during the tournament when their matches were screened back home – the first time Iranian women’s sports were broadcast live on Iranian national television.
In a country where women are not allowed into stadiums to watch men’s football, this was seen as significant.
“It was such a huge step to have our games shown live on television,” said Sanaei. “It really means a lot. We hope that this continues and will have a positive effect on this sport.”
Chadwick says more state support is required for the sport to grow.
“This must be seen as just the start and not the end of the team’s journey. Indeed it demands that sports officials in Iran must take women’s ice hockey, and for that matter women’s sport, much more seriously,” he said.
“There is an opportunity for the Iranian government to utilise ice hockey success as the prompt for promoting female sport. It should be encouraging engagement amongst relevant groups, and must not see it as a sinister threat to Iran’s male hegemony.”
The signs are promising as the players were reimbursed – and given bonuses – for their expenses in playing in Thailand by the Ministry of Sport. They received messages of congratulations from sports minister Hamid Sajjadi as well as spokespeople for the Iranian government and the foreign ministry.
It all means that Sanaei is excited about what comes next.
“We are so looking forward to the future as we believe that next time we can make it to the top. With all the training that we will have, we can get there even in one year. Whatever happens, we won’t lose hope as we have faith that we will get to the best place.”
And there is a bigger prize, helping to inspire other young girls in Iran to pick up hockey sticks or take up any sport.
“Our achievement can help all of Iran’s women to know that there is nothing that can stop them and, even with all the barriers in front of them, if they try, they will make it to wherever they want.”