Fifa will 'stand firm' on women's access to Iran matches

By Dan Roan & Alistair MagowanBBC Sport
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Fifa will "stand firm" in ensuring women have access to all football matches in Iran despite claims the world governing body could have prevented the death of an activist.

Women have effectively been banned from stadiums when men are playing since just after the 1979 Islamic revolution.

But Fifa said it has been "assured" by Iranian authorities that women will be able to attend matches.

More than 3,500 tickets have been sold to female fans for Iran's World Cup qualifier against Cambodia in Tehran on Thursday, although Amnesty International called that a "token number" and a "publicity stunt" given the stadium has a capacity of 78,000.

The issue came to global prominence after Sahar Khodayari, known as 'blue girl' because of the team she supported, set fire to herself outside court last month as she awaited trial for trying to attend a match disguised as a man.

The 29-year-old died a week later.

Fifa's head of education and social responsibility Joyce Cook told BBC Sport: "It's not just about one match. We're not going to turn our eyes away from this.

"We're totally focused on making sure women can attend this match on 10 October and working just as pragmatically to ensure women also can attend local matches in league football - but it's about what follows as well.

"Fifa has a very firm stand - fans are equally entitled to attend matches.

"At times there are these lines in the sand moments, to set a new era. We expect that the access for women into matches is also going to happen in the leagues as well. This is a moment for real change.

"We are firm and committed that all fans have an equal right, including women, to attend matches."

Amnesty International's Philip Luther said that only allowing 3,500 tickets to be sold to women for the World Cup qualifier was "a cynical publicity stunt by the authorities intended to whitewash their image following the global outcry over Sahar Khodayari's tragic death".

He added: "Anything short of a full reversal of the ban on women accessing all football stadiums is an insult to Sahar Khodayari's memory and an affront to the rights of all the women of Iran who have been courageously campaigning for the ban to be lifted.

"The international community, including world football's governing body Fifa, must also ensure that women are permitted to attend all matches freely and without discrimination."

Khodayari's death was 'preventable'

Campaigner Maryam Shojaei, who is the sister of the men's Iran national team captain Masoud Shojaei, said that Fifa could have helped save the life of Khodayari had it taken firmer action sooner.

Shojaei said the 40-year ban was "embarrassing" because it was "not even a true reflection of our society".

It was temporarily lifted last year to allow women to watch the men's World Cup being streamed at a stadium in Tehran.

Last November, there were hopes that changes were due after a group of women were allowed to watch the second leg of the Asian Champions League final in Tehran, a game that Fifa president Gianni Infantino also attended.

However, women have been denied access to matches since, with clerics insisting they must be protected from bad language and the sight of semi-clad men.

Maryam Shojaei told the BBC: "[Khodayari's death] happened a few weeks ago and we've been sending letters to Fifa for years. If they took those letters and the issue more seriously the death of this girl would have been preventable."

But she added: "I think [Fifa] are now heading in the right direction; every time I send a letter, there are people inside Fifa who care about this issue and I'm very grateful for that.

"This change will be made by Iranian women because they are not those who sit at home and do nothing, they are educated, independent, opinionated and participative in society. I want the world to know how powerful Iranian women are."

Cook added: "All of us are really saddened by what happened to Sahar and our hearts and our sincere thoughts go out to her family and friends and we now need to work to find practical solutions to ensure that women have free access to matches in Iran.

"In recent years we've made our position clear and more recently we've really stepped that process up.

"We've sent a very clear message to the local authorities and the football federation, but we're also offering our support because we want practical solutions."

Asked if Iran might be banned from playing at home if women were not allowed access, Cook added: "It's not about holding matches elsewhere in the world, we want the matches in Iran and we want women attending.

"That's our focus, but of course we will look to the future and the outcomes as they come along."

Fifa says it is aware of a demonstration featuring an estimated 50 radicals in Tehran earlier this week, protesting against the decision to allow women into the stadium.

A delegation from Fifa will be present at the match to observe.