Football must stand against Iran’s discrimination and abuse of women

9/11 will live forever as an historic date. It now has further significance and a similar level of regret attached to it, following the death of a female football fan in Iran.

It is the date FIFA announced that a delegation would be sent to the Iranian capital to meet with local officials. They would oversee the processes behind Iran’s decision to allow women to attend the World Cup qualifying match against Cambodia in October.

The decision is not to be confused with any progressive thinking that may finally have seen the West Asian nation join the majority of the world in the present. The permission granted to women to attend the qualifier is nothing more than a clear reaction to international sentiment and pressure after the tragic events of September 2nd and the death of Iranian woman Sahar Khodayari.

Vast sums of money and significant time will be wasted on what is unfortunately a necessary visit to one of the AFC’s most notable and successful members; to effectively deal with what is a most fundamental human rights violation.

The delegation will arrive shortly and carries with it the message of the united football world. One protesting Iran’s consistent refusal to admit half its population into its stadiums to enjoy the beautiful game.

According to Iranian authorities, 29-year-old Khodayari was a criminal. Her crime was a desire to watch football. As such, she broke the law, disguised herself as a male as best she could and attempted to gain admittance to Tehran’s Azadi Stadium in March.

Her hope was to watch Esteghlal, a club with a predominately blue strip; her club. Wearing a blue wig and a long trench coat, Khodayari bravely attempted to blend in with thousands of men outside the stadium, desperate to be discreet and innocuous.

Sadly, her bid to defy what has been a mandated ban on female attendance at football matches for over 40 years failed. She was arrested and detained.

There is no doubt that the incident would have drawn little or no attention around the globe had it not been for what followed. Most likely just a court appearance and a dishing out of what the local authorities saw as an appropriate punishment for a woman wanting to watch a game of football.

Khodayari was informed in the lead up to her court date that the likely punishment was to be six months in prison. Comprehending the sheer idiocy of such a punishment is difficult for those living in free and open societies around the globe.

Through either fear, terror or protest, Sahar Khodayari set herself alight on the courthouse steps outside the building where she was to receive her punishment. She died days later, was buried somewhere around the 6th or 7th of September before authorities announced her death on the 9th.

Tributes flooded in for the woman who would become known as the ‘Blue Girl’ and Iranian citizens held a candlelit vigil on September 12 in memory of the football fan.

Amnesty International labelled the events as displaying Iran’s “appalling contempt for women’s rights in the country.”

It is a contempt that appears finally under pressure, yet one that required an innocent women’s courage and sacrifice to bring the full extent of the horrific truths of Iranian injustice and discrimination to the surface.

Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi’s 2006 documentary Offside raised awareness of the issue and captured the story of a group of women detained whilst attempting to enter a qualifying match. Sadly, it appears political and social will has only now arrived.

No doubt, Iranian authorities will allow some women into the match against Cambodia, hoping that external pressure will be quelled and any serious repercussions from Khodayari’s death avoided.

Australia’s newly formed body Women in Football has asked FFA Chairman Chris Nikou to make a compelling statement; calling for a boycott of Iranian football should FIFA take little or no action before its October deadline.

As of yet, Australian football has not indicated that it would be prepared to take such a step, despite others calling for change.

Jesper Moller, president of the Danish Football Association called for sanctions against Iran should it continue to ban women from matches. He said, “The rules are clear. Discrimination cannot be tolerated.”

Despite Moller’s comments holding a fundamental human and political truth, a clear shift in Iran’s policies will require consistent international pressure and a firm hand.

Considering their utter disregard for the human dignity of women, an altered view around who and who cannot attend football matches will not be formed lightly.

It is up to all of us to remember Sahar Khodayari and demand change.

Staff Writer
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Graham Arnold speaks at AFC National Coaches Conference

Socceroos’ Head Coach Graham Arnold addressed the 3rd Asian Football Confederation (AFC) National Coaches Conference on Thursday, 9 May in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

The three-day conference reflects on insights gained from the AFC Asian Cup Qatar 2023, while also considering the forthcoming expanded FIFA World Cup in 2026.

It gave Graham Arnold and other AFC associated coaches a chance to exchange ideas and share information in a bid to help improve and inspire each other as Round Three of World Cup Qualification approaches.

Arnold was selected by the AFC and spoke amongst other eminent coaches from across the Confederation including former Manchester City legend Yaya Toure.

After a memorable 2022 World Cup campaign and over three decades of coaching within the confederation, it’s no surprise that Graham Arnold is held in such high regard, and this represents a step forward for Football Australia.

Football Australia CEO, James Johnson spoke on how important it was for Graham Arnold to speak at such an event.

“Arnie’s record and reputation within international football speaks for itself, and his leadership of the Subway Socceroos has been exceptional over the last six years,” Johnson said in an statement for Football Australia.

“His contribution to Australian football as a player and coach extends almost three decades, and he possesses a wealth of knowledge that can help assist the development of our game throughout Asia.

“Arnie is held in high esteem not just here in Australia, but throughout the Confederation and we’re extremely proud to see him playing such a key role in a conference of this significance.”

Socceroos’ Head Coach, Graham Arnold spoke about how honoured he was to be involved in the AFC National Coaches Conference.

“It’s a privilege to be sharing the room with so many fantastic coaches and I’m looking forward to sharing some of my experience with the group,” Arnold said at the event.

“We’ve all taken different journeys into coaching and bring varied perspectives which I think can be really valuable to discuss in this type of environment.

“I’m sure we’ll all walk away with something to take back and share with our respective teams – it’s a great initiative from the AFC.”

It is always positive to see top Australian coaches share and learn critical ideas from other successful names within the Asian football space as the country continues to underscore is commitment to advancing coaching quality.

How the Liberty A-League can learn from the incredible growth of NWSL

As the A-League Women’s Grand Final approaches and season comes to an end, it is a time to reflect on a season of incredible growth and broken records.

Similarly to the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) post-2015 Women’s World Cup, there was a popularity boost that translated into increased attendances and revenue for the league.

However, as the NWSL continued to rapidly develop, it seems as if the Liberty A-League struggled to consistently grow after a fantastic first round showing that involved a record-breaking 11,471 crowd for the Sydney Derby.

In the top 10 attendances of the regular season, eight feature games played before the new year despite the Matildas set to sell out a 14th consecutive home match before the Olympics commence in July.

The Liberty A-League crowd average is a little over 2,200 per match, which is a great benchmark for future growth but doesn’t do the participation and momentum justice.

The NWSL is a great case study to look at, with the league being formed only 12 years ago in 2012 and its first season started in the April of 2013.

In its formative years, the NWSL averaged an attendance 4,270, with a high of 17,619. A decent foundation but plenty of room to improve in the world’s biggest sporting market.

It wasn’t until the 2015 season where the league was forced into a shortened schedule and some early-season roster instability due to the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup in Canada.

The World Cup, which was won emphatically by the USWNT also provided invaluable exposure to the NWSL, which was credited with boosting attendance numbers across the league.

Instantly, teams such as Seattle and Washington who averaged 3,500 crowds per game were selling upwards of 6,000 to their next home game, an immediate resurgence.

So what did the NWSL do to fast-track growth using the World Cup?

Ticket prices

The NWSL, immediately after the 2015 Women’s World Cup pledged to keep the ticket prices consistent within teams, as it sat at $10-$15 USD (AUD $15-$23) across the league.

It was extremely cheap in a saturated and quite expensive US Sports market that allowed the league to use it as a point of difference.

It’s a simple solution that Melbourne City coach Dario Vidosic hinted at for this weekend’s Grand Final in his recent press conference.

Vidosic claimed that “If it was up to him, everyone would be let in for free for Saturday’s final.”

This is simply to create an exciting atmosphere that legitimises the league’s biggest game of the year on a national stage.

Breakaway from Men’s competition

NWSL Commissioner Jessica Berman made an extremely interesting point about the NWSL being its own entity.

Speaking to reporters at the Financial Times’ Business of Football summit in London, Berman said the “superpower” of the NWSL was its “independence” – notably from men’s clubs and leagues, which is not the case in Europe or Australia.

It certainly isn’t an overnight fix by any means but allowing the A-League Women’s to run separately from the A-League Men’s, even if it is just ownership could provide a difference that attracts more fans.

Maintaining local star players

Even in it’s infancy, the NWSL were able to show off USWNT stars like Lynn Williams, Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan during their ‘Golden Era.’

It collectively brought in more fans to the stands and increased the league’s exposure in the mainstream media.

It certainly isn’t as easy as that when the prospect of playing for more money and exposure in the US or Europe is a possibility now, but Cortnee Vine provides a great example of a star Matilda willing to be the face of the league to inspire young girls.

If the league are able to keep hold of exciting prospects like Daniela Galic or legends like Michelle Heyman for a few years, it would benefit the league greatly as an entertainment product.

Providing a great fan experience

There was an onus on the NWSL clubs and the league itself to make sure matchdays are an experience that brings fans back.

Two clubs in particular Angel City and San Diego Wave fans host tailgates pre-game near the stadium for anyone to join on top of other activations inside the stadium to connect fans closer to the team.

The WSW Women’s team are a fantastic example of an effort to build support, with their Wander Women program, school clinics, fan interactions and their own social media channels helping them grow slowly but surely.

It’s time the others follow suit in a collective attempt to maximise exposure.

To conclude, the NWSL used the 2015 World Cup as leverage to strike a quick deal with Fox Sports to broadcast 15 games for the rest of that season, cashing in on the national team’s success.

Now it boasts the biggest ever Women’s football media deal in history, with the recent four-year $240 million USD ($324 million AUD) domestic broadcast deal across four major streaming and cable partners.

It will be extremely interesting to see the direction the Liberty A-League takes before it renews its broadcast deal in 2026 as it simply cannot waste this golden opportunity it was presented.

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