Nancy Gillen

Iran has had a mixed week in the sporting world. It began with reports that the country's 40-year ban on women attending football matches is set to end in October, before culminating with an Iranian judoka causing great consternation for the International Judo Federation (IJF).

Both pieces of news caused shock waves across the sporting landscape, although the former for more positive reasons.

The claim that women will be able to attend Iran's 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifier against Cambodia in October, made by Iranian deputy Sports Minister Jamshid Taghizadeh and reported by Islamic Republic News Agency, will have provided an unexpected dose of relief for FIFA.

The situation was becoming something of an embarrassment for FIFA President Gianni Infantino, who had written to the Iranian Football Federation (FFIRI) in June, seeking assurance that women would be allowed to attend World Cup qualifiers later in the year.

There had been a point when the FFIRI had begun to relax the ban, with 100 Iranian women allowed to watch the men's national team friendly against Bolivia last October.

Also, 500 women attended the AFC Champions League final match in Tehran between Persepolis and Japan's Kashima Antlers the following month.

This has turned out to be short-lived, however, with fans turned away from Iran's friendly match with Syria in June. A number were even arrested for putting on fake beards and wigs to try and attend.

Two fans were also removed from the FIFA Women's World Cup match between Canada and New Zealand on June 15, having entered the Stade des Alpes in Grenoble wearing T-shirts that called for Iranian women to be let into stadiums.

Women were allowed to watch Iran's friendly with Bolivia last October ©Getty Images
Women were allowed to watch Iran's friendly with Bolivia last October ©Getty Images

FIFA then backtracked on the ejection, saying the message was social and not political, therefore not breaching any rules.

With the situation escalating, Infantino wrote his letter, setting July 15 as the date to permit women to buy World Cup qualifier match tickets, a deadline which was missed. It seemed like Infantino would have to take further steps against the FFIRI or otherwise appear to look powerless.

Suddenly, out of the blue, Islamic Republic News Agency reported Taghizadeh's comments and Infantino had his wish. At the moment, however, there is no evidence that women will actually be allowed into Tehran's Azadi Stadium for the match.

Attitudes in Iran, among decision-makers at least, are still firmly against women going to football games.

The country's chief prosecutor Mohammad Jafar Montazeri described the attendance of women at the friendly against Bolivia as "sinful".

He had more to say earlier this month during the period of increased pressure from FIFA.

"FIFA has no sympathy for Iranian women, and its insistence on allowing them to enter arenas and watch male footballers competing against each other, is a reflection of enemy's infiltration in Iran," he said, as reported by Radio Farda.

With attitudes like this prominent, will we really see female spectators as soon as October? Or could Taghizadeh’s comments have been a way of reducing the pressure from FIFA?

This could be the case, as we have literally just seen Iran backtrack on a promise to a governing body at the Judo World Championships in Tokyo.

Iranian judoka and world number one Saeid Mollaei was accused of throwing his last two bouts in the under-81 kilogram category, in an attempt to avoid meeting Israel’s Sagi Muki in the final or stand on the podium with him.

Iran forbid their athletes from facing Israeli opposition due to the political and diplomatic tensions between the two countries, and it is likely that Mollaei feigned injury in order to follow this rule.

Israel Judo Association President Moshe Fonti even claimed that Mollaei had been willing to fight Muki, but Iranian officials came to both the arena and Mollaei's home to force him to underperform.

Iran's Saeid Mollaei, white, was accused of throwing two of his bouts ©Getty Images
Iran's Saeid Mollaei, white, was accused of throwing two of his bouts ©Getty Images

"Mollaei intended to continue the contest, even if he had to face Sagi Muki at the final," Fonti told Army Radio.

"We heard he'd asked the head of the Iranian judo association to ensure his family was kept safe.

"From what we understand, within a short time Iranian intelligence officials came both to his home in Iran and to the judo arena and warned him.

"I don’t know what happened there, but eventually he lost both battles."

Only a few months ago, however, Iran's National Olympic Committee had signed a letter with the IJF, stating that they would "fully respect the Olympic Charter and its non-discrimination principle" in future competitions. 

Pressure from IJF President Marius Vizer was credited with this concession, but it is now obvious that it was essentially meaningless if greater powers wanted it to be.

The situation seems incredibly similar to what is happening between FIFA and the FFIRI. Unfortunately, it is doubtful that the ingrained attitude towards women attending football matches will change just because of a bit of pressure from an external governing body.

It is unknown what the consequences of the incident at the World Judo Championships will be, but surely only the threat of suspension will now bring the Iranian Judo Federation in line.

Luckily for Infantino things are looking rosier, but failure to carry out their promise to allow women to attend football matches could see the FFIRI receive a similar threat. It will be interesting to see who comes out on top in both battles.