Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has vowed to “seriously confront” world soccer body FIFA’s to ban the Islamic republic’s women's soccer team from wearing religious garb during professional matches.
Mr. Ahmadinejad told a Tehran news conference that he had instructed vice president and sports czar Ali Saeidlu to head Iran’s effort to overturn FIFA’s decision.
“I ordered to follow up the issue and we will seriously confront the decision by dictators who just wear the gown of democracy. Despite what happened, I am proud of our girls,” Mr. Ahmadinejad said.
Iran’s Football Federation (FFI) chief Afi Kafashian appealed to FIFA president Sepp Blatter to reverse a decision and allow for a 2012 Olympics qualifying match that was cancelled by a Bahrain FIFA referee because of the Iranian team’s dress.
The cancellation lead to Jordan being declared the victor and Iran losing its opportunity to qualify for next year’s Olympics in London.
“Our girls have worked hard for the qualifying matches and should not be deprived in this manner,” the state-run Fars news agency quoted Mr. Kafashian as saying.
Earlier, FIFA rejected an Iranian protest and said Iran had been advised in advance that the team would not be allowed to wear the Islamic dress or hijab for safety reasons.
FIFA said the decision to cancel the game was in line with its laws and regulation.
FIFA bans religious symbols on the soccer pitch but agreed with Iran several years ago that the Iranian women’s team would be allowed to wear a head dress that does not cover the neck and ears. The Iranian reversal to more Islamic dress violated that agreement.
Mr. Ahmadinejad, a soccer player and enthusiast, has taken a close interest in soccer in a bid to polish his tarnished image and curry popular favor. A 2009 US diplomatic cable disclosed by WikiLeaks concluded that the president’s efforts had only limited success.
The Iranian president went as far as in 2006 lifting the ban on women watching soccer matches in Iranian stadia, but in a rare public disagreement was overruled by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
Mr. Ahmedinejad has effectively been a hands-on in the manager of the Iranian team. The US cable reported that he pressured the Iranian football federation to lift its 2008 suspension of star Ali Karimi so that he could play in 2010 World Cup qualifiers, engineered the 2009 firing of Ali Daei as coach, ensured that Daei’s successor Mohamed Mayeli-Kohan lasted all of two weeks in the job so that his candidate would be appointed.
Mr. Ahmedinejad has justified his interference telling Iranian journalists that “unfortunately, this sport has been afflicted with some very bad issues. I must intervene personally to push aside these destructive issues.”
Like in other Middle Eastern nations, Mr. Ahmadinejad’s efforts to politically manipulate the beautiful game turned the soccer pitch into a platform for dissent.
The Iranian federation postponed league matches in Tehran in February in a bid to prevent celebrations of the 32nd anniversary of the Islamic revolution from turning into anti-government protests inspired by the toppling earlier this year of the Egyptian and Tunisian presidents by mass anti-government protests.
The funeral last month of famous Iranian soccer player Nasser Hejazi, an internationally acclaimed defender and outspoken critic of the president in Tehran’s Azadi stadium turned into a mass protest against the government of Mr. Ahmadinejad.
Mourners chanted “Hejazi, you spoke in the name of the people” in a reference to Mr. Hejazi’s criticism of the Iranian president’s economic policies. Mr. Hejazi took Mr. Ahmadinejad in April publicly to task for Iran’s gaping income difference and budgetary measure, which hit the poorest the hardest.
The mourners also shouted “Goodbye Hejazi, today the brave are mourning” and “Mr Nasser, rise up, your people can't stand it anymore.”
Mourners in the Behsht Zahra cemetery where Mr. Hejazi was buried shouted “Mubarak, Bin Ali, now it’s your turn Khamenei!” in reference to ousted Egyptian and Tunisian presidents Hosni Mubarak and Zine Abedine Ben Ali and Iranian spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Mr. Hejazi tried to run for president as an independent candidate in Iran’s 2005 elections, but was forced by authorities to withdraw.
(James M. Dorsey, formerly of The Wall Street Journal, is a senior researcher at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer. He can be reached via email at: email@example.com)