Farewell to a Football Love Affair in Iran

15 November, 2022

 

Sara Mokhavat

Trans­lat­ed from the Per­sian by Salar Abdoh

 

In our fam­i­ly, by the time a kid was five years old they’d already know if they were a sup­port­er of the Perse­po­lis foot­ball club or Estegh­lal, Iran’s top two teams and peren­ni­al rivals at the Tehran der­by. I became a Perse­po­lis fan the day I real­ized my favorite uncle fixed his cal­en­dar and his dai­ly rou­tines around the “Red Army.” He’d been tak­ing me to the sta­di­um before I could even speak so he could show off the next gen­er­a­tion of Perse­po­lis fans to his friends. On one occa­sion anoth­er uncle who was a fan of Estegh­lal tried to do the same. This time we were in a sea of blue, Esteghlal’s col­or, but I still kept scream­ing for Perse­po­lis with the few words I had in my vocab­u­lary. The uncle was mor­ti­fied. He took me back home and I remained a die-hard Perse­po­lis fan for life.

I may have been a girl, but I nev­er backed down from a game with the boys, com­pet­ing with my cousins in the back­yard and play­ing the role of one Perse­po­lis foot­ball star after anoth­er. But as I grew old­er and my body began to change I was slow­ly ban­ished from the field. The drib­bling days and show­ing the guys who was boss were over. This was of course unac­cept­able to me, espe­cial­ly now that the games were tak­ing place not just in the back­yard but on a real grass pitch with real teams. I want­ed to go on wear­ing the num­ber 17 of Meh­di Mah­davikia, Perse­po­lis’ cel­e­brat­ed right winger whose name I’d sewn with my own hands on the back of my jer­sey, and hit the field. But it wasn’t to be. Appar­ent­ly a foot­ball pitch was no place for a young Mus­lim girl who now had to wear a hijab and loose fit­ting clothes to hide her body.

One time I threw such a tantrum that they final­ly gave in and let me be goalie for a while. They fig­ured as goal­keep­er I’d have no phys­i­cal con­tact with my male coun­ter­parts. They were wrong. I wasn’t that kind of a goalie. My role mod­el for the posi­tion was Paraguay’s Jose Luis Chilavert, a man known to play for blood. I’d throw myself at the boys try­ing to drib­ble past me as if my life depend­ed on it. Yet the whole time I also had an eye on my moth­er stand­ing on the side­lines, look­ing utter­ly shame­faced in front of the men of her fam­i­ly for hav­ing raised such a rebel­lious daugh­ter. At some point, a penal­ty was giv­en to the oth­er team. That same uncle who was an Estegh­lal fan got behind the ball. I stood in my goal, care­ful­ly gaug­ing his body and eye move­ments. I could tell he was mea­sur­ing and aim­ing in a weird way and real­ized it was me he was aim­ing at rather than try­ing to score. He want­ed to teach me a les­son. He kicked. I didn’t move a mus­cle, know­ing the ball would be com­ing straight at me and it did. I got it right in the face. He was laugh­ing and prob­a­bly count­ed on me cry­ing and leav­ing the field. Instead, I jumped up and down and raised my fist to show I was ready for more. My eyes and cheeks were burn­ing from the blow I had received, but I wasn’t going to give them the plea­sure of see­ing me give up.

Nev­er­the­less, five min­utes lat­er they made me leave the field any­way. I’d had my few min­utes in the sun and now I had to go back to being a girl. I went and sat in a cor­ner by myself and after a while even stopped watch­ing the game. I was start­ing to believe — believe that I’d nev­er make it to Old Traf­ford in Man­ches­ter or the Allianz Are­na in Munich or San Siro in Milan. I’d nev­er bring my lips to the grass in front of tens of thou­sands of ador­ing fans and I’d nev­er be able to play in a coun­try where foot­ball, like so much else, was a men only thing, a coun­try where a woman hadn’t even the right to enter a sta­di­um. I was real­iz­ing once and for all that my love affair with foot­ball had to be con­fined to the TV screen and remain there.

I’d stand in front of the tele­vi­sion before every Perse­po­lis game and as the announc­er called the play­ers’ names, I’d scream at the top of my voice. It was all that I had left. One of my girl cousins, who also had a love of foot­ball, would wait until the red flags of Perse­po­lis draped the screen and then she’d throw her­self at the tele­vi­sion vir­tu­al­ly kiss­ing it. We were not just fans, but rather, we made up for the ban on our very exis­tence by being par­tic­u­lar­ly fanat­i­cal fans. This behav­ior made my moth­er dou­bly angry, as noth­ing incensed her more than a female of any age for­get­ting her place in the world. I was for­bid­den to put up posters of my favorite play­ers on the walls of my bed­room. She’d say things like, “Pos­sess­ing pic­tures of men is haram. And if she ever caught me with pho­tographs of Perse­po­lis play­ers — it hap­pened all the time — she’d tear them to pieces with spe­cial ven­om. Often I won­dered if she weren’t so venge­ful because she her­self was a fan of Estegh­lal, as was my father. When it came to foot­ball, the quar­rels in our fam­i­ly were more than just a male/female thing; my par­ents actu­al­ly sup­port­ed the ene­my team. Foot­ball had become the embod­i­ment of every­thing we dis­agreed on, and we dis­agreed on just about everything.

But at our all-girls high school, I remained some­thing of a foot­ball queen. At the start of the week the teach­ers would give me the tri­bune to speak at length about the weekend’s games, and if any Estegh­lal fans tried to get a word in, they’d be hushed. One year, my cousin Moham­mad who was now 17 and with whom I’d played end­less­ly dur­ing our younger days, decid­ed he was going to the Tehran der­by for the Perse­po­lis-Estegh­lal game. His fam­i­ly was against him going. But, he was a boy; he could do what he want­ed. It’s not a big exag­ger­a­tion to say that us girls could hard­ly get a drink of water with­out hav­ing to first ask per­mis­sion, where­as boys inevitably always got their way. And so, Moham­mad went and didn’t ask a sec­ond time if he could go or not. He and his friends had had a huge red flag made and on it they’d had sewn, The heart of the city of Behba­han beats for Perse­po­lis.

 

Iran’s Perse­po­lis team and fans cel­e­brate a win.

 

Some­thing broke in me when Moham­mad went to Tehran for the der­by. We’d grown up togeth­er, played togeth­er, loved Perse­po­lis equal­ly togeth­er, and yet where he was going was haram to me, because when it came right down to it any­thing that was remote­ly fun, any­thing that might bring a smile to a girl’s heart in this world seemed to always be haram. Moham­mad returned from that game with a new­found pride in his eyes. He’d been to the holy grail of foot­ball in Iran, the Perse­po­lis-Estegh­lal game. And it didn’t mat­ter if Perse­po­lis lost that day. For months after­wards he’d go on for hours talk­ing about what had hap­pened at the sta­di­um. The doors of the great der­by were now open to him. And so, he went again. And again. To that mag­i­cal space where the same doors were except for rare occa­sions almost always closed to half the pop­u­la­tion of the country.

 Around that time, my cousin Mahshid joined Behbahan’s women’s indoor fut­sal league. I was play­ing bas­ket­ball by then, but my heart was still with foot­ball. Fut­sal was noth­ing to me. I want­ed to be out­doors, on grass, in fresh air and among a thou­sand fans watch­ing while you ran from one end of the field to the oth­er. Play­ing indoors felt like a joke. It was claus­tro­pho­bic and nev­er seemed real. I fig­ured it was their way of say­ing, You women want to play so much, here take this indoor game and be grate­ful. I’d some­times watch Mahshid who was a strik­er and a bril­liant one at that. Her pass­es toward goal were always immac­u­late. But what use? Those ele­gant pass­es should have been wit­nessed in front of hun­dreds, thou­sands of peo­ple — young and old, adults and chil­dren, men and women. Instead, they didn’t even per­mit us to film our games so we could watch and learn from them. God for­bid if a group of men got hold of the footage and saw sev­er­al sweat­ing, excit­ed women run­ning after a ball.

None of this was for me. I gave up. Either I’d play on a real grass pitch and with wind blow­ing through my hair or I was not inter­est­ed. I didn’t want their hand-me-down ver­sion of football.

As time went on and I moved on to Tehran for col­lege and after­wards, whether some­one was a Perse­po­lis fan or not usu­al­ly remained a mea­sure of our friend­ship. That’s how much of a fan I remained. It was, I admit, even a bit juve­nile, but in ret­ro­spect I believe I was try­ing to make up any­way I could for hav­ing been turned away from play­ing the game itself.

Then it dawned on some of us that there was a way to get to Aza­di sta­di­um and watch Perse­po­lis like a true fan. All we had to do was go as men. The trick was to wear loose cloth­ing, put on a hat, wrap your breasts tight with ban­dage rolls to flat­ten them and have a make­up artist dab a five o’clock shad­ow on your face. Most of this I could do. But flat­ten my breasts? I don’t think so. A few of my friends went and were prompt­ly arrest­ed. Maybe their make­up wasn’t good enough or their breasts showed despite the ban­dage and the loose shirts. Then again, oth­ers went and weren’t caught. The way they described the feel­ing of scream­ing Perse­po­lis’ name along with 50,000 ador­ing fans left me no choice but to try it out. I had to do this. At least once. I told myself I’d stud­ied act­ing in col­lege and my voice was nat­u­ral­ly low. As for the breast pain, I’d put up with it for a few hours.

Aza­di Sta­di­um, get ready. I’m com­ing. The ground will shake from my belt­ing out Perse­po­lis’ name. Our red army is going to have a new sol­dier in the sta­di­um at last. 

But then news came that a young woman named Sahar Kho­da­yari, an Estegh­lal fan, who had gone to the sta­di­um dressed as a man and been caught end­ed up com­mit­ting sui­cide by burn­ing her­self. The fans, but real­ly all of Iran, called her the Blue Girl after the team’s col­or. There was obvi­ous sad­ness. For a while, teams even came on the pitch wear­ing black arm­bands. But in the end, noth­ing changed. Men con­tin­ued to go on the field and play while oth­er men stood and sat in the sta­di­ums and celebrated.

I was heart­bro­ken. I knew that if one day I were killed for the sake of Perse­po­lis, it would be exact­ly the same. My death would mean noth­ing to the team. This love affair was one-sided — a love that I had fought to keep and for which I had been pun­ished count­less times. Perse­po­lis was a lover who could eas­i­ly go on with­out me and nev­er so much as lend a sec­ond glance.

The writer Sara Mokha­vat at the Iran-Cam­bo­dia match at Aza­di Sta­di­um in Tehran (pho­to cour­tesy Salar Abdoh).

Final­ly, I cut the cord between us. From then on, when­ev­er I saw an arti­cle in one of the papers about Perse­po­lis, I’d skip past it. I stopped watch­ing the games on tele­vi­sion; I bot­tled, corked and threw away years of fan­dom. Yet just as I did this, some­thing hap­pened that opened the doors of Aza­di Sta­di­um to us women at last.

Some­time after Blue Girl’s death, FIFA put pres­sure on the Iran­ian Foot­ball Fed­er­a­tion to allow women into sta­di­ums. The fed­er­a­tion had no choice but to reserve a frac­tion of the seats for at least one game for women. I imme­di­ate­ly bought my tick­et. The women’s seats had sold out unbe­liev­ably fast. But this was not an impor­tant game at all — Iran ver­sus Cam­bo­dia, a lop­sided match that hard­ly mat­tered and not many peo­ple would attend. Still, the sham would get FIFA off the federation’s back via a match no one real­ly took seriously.

But the women did.

It was a once in a life­time oppor­tu­ni­ty that we felt might final­ly be the first step toward hav­ing Aza­di Stadium’s doors open to us per­ma­nent­ly. We arrived laugh­ing, scream­ing and hold­ing up our flags. Mine was a Perse­po­lis flag (I couldn’t help it). But at the gate they wouldn’t let me in with that flag. “Only Iran flags today,” they said. I didn’t have an Iran flag with me. I begged the secu­ri­ty guy, but he wouldn’t budge.

After pass­ing through secu­ri­ty there was a hall­way to go through to get to the seats. The cry­ing had begun in earnest. Women were stand­ing around wav­ing their ban­ners, clap­ping, gaz­ing at the seat­ing areas ahead of us and bawl­ing their eyes out. Once we got out to the open air the weep­ing got loud­er. Women were run­ning their hands over the seats and chant­i­ng, Blue Girl/wish you were here now. The impos­si­ble had hap­pened for us females who loved the game. We’d final­ly been allowed inside Aza­di. This was no small feat.

That day Iran won 14–0. Cam­bo­dia was no match for one of Asia’s pow­er­hous­es of foot­ball with nation­al team mem­bers, many of whom reg­u­lar­ly played in the top Euro­pean leagues. We returned to our homes with hearts full of light for a change. But Iran did not keep those doors open for us. That one day had been an anom­aly, the foot­ball federation’s pre­tense for FIFA.

Still, we had made it inside Aza­di sta­di­um, hadn’t we? It hadn’t just been our imag­i­na­tion, had it? For months after­wards we were telling peo­ple about that sin­gu­lar day in our lives — a day that in the end had lit­tle mean­ing, even if we didn’t want to believe it, even if there was lit­tle excite­ment in the real­i­ty of a throw­away match, plus the fact that I wasn’t even there to watch my beloved Perse­po­lis. What this was, in fact, was the slight­est of cracks in the steel armor of exclu­sion that allowed us women to breathe just for a moment before the cur­tains came down on us again.

 

Sara Mokhavat studied Film at the University of Art in Tehran. Her novel, The Woman Who was Found at the Lost & Found, was published in 2016 in Iran. She also wrote and directed the play, Goodbye My Cherry Orchard, and her short film, Private, was shown at the 57th Chicago Film Festival. Currently she’s working on a book regarding the Iran-Iraq war.

Azadi StadiumFIFAIranian footballPersepolisSoccersports and womenTehran

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Shakeh Amirian
Shakeh Amirian
9 days ago

Thank you Sara and Salar for shar­ing this sto­ry. It reveals a lot.