Iran | ‘As if one were under water’

The Iranian women’s team failed to defend its title in the West Asian Women’s Football Championship, losing 1–2 to hosts Jordan earlier this month. (Yalda Moaiery | ISNA)

Kreuzberg team of Berlin learns about football under cover

Berlin | After months of diplomatic wrangling, filmmaker Ayat Najafi had to content himself with experiencing the centerpiece of his new project, Football Under Cover, as an exile.

At Ararat Stadium in Tehran on 28 Apr 06, Najafi stood outside the arena along with husbands of the women inside—players for the Iranian women’s national team, their amateur opponents, BSV Al-Dersimspor of Kreuzberg, and about 1,000 female supporters. As the women for the multicultural team from Berlin had to comply with Islamic clothing restrictions during the visit, Najafi had to respect the mandates covering gender segregation at public sporting events. He was tethered by mobile phone to the all-woman crew within, but it was not enough.

“For me the most terrible moment—it’s a sensitive moment—was not as a filmmaker but as a human,” said Najafi in a Sept 5 interview from his home in Berlin. “I fell in love with these footballers. They had all these problems, and they just want to play football. … At the very end I couldn’t be involved. I was really nervous outside the stadium when I had nothing to do.”

The match had come about as a by-product of a fortuitous meeting at the 2005 Berlinale Talent Campus, a segment of the Berlin International Film Festival that caters to up-and-coming filmmakers. As part of the Artistic and Cultural Programme of the 2006 FIFA World Cup, organizers had selected “Shoot Goals! Shoot Movies!” as a theme. The result was 45 short films, including Najafi’s Move It, a four-minute meditation on an Iranian woman’s footballing passions. At the conference, Najafi met Marlene Assmann, who had helped produce her own film, Der Weg ist das Spiel (The Way Is the Game), about the origins of BSV Al-Dersimspor as a melding of players with Turkish, German, Greek, Arab and Eastern European backgrounds. Assmann, along with two sisters and a cousin, had helped establish the side in the distinctive capital borough abutting the earlier location of the Berlin Wall.


Assmann and Najafi together conceived another cultural exchange, on the level of nations, in proposing a home-and-home friendly series between Al-Dersimspor and Iran. The matches would be depicted in a documentary film, tentatively titled Football Under Cover. As Najafi details in our interview, the diplomatic hurdles proved mountainous, but ultimately surmountable due to ideological splits within the regime. The Iranian diplomatic corps seemed to object to the exchange, while the matches had the blessing of Iranian football authorities, who have been trying to develop women’s football over the past decade. (There are some 20 women’s clubs in the country.)

Nevertheless, the initial game—the first outdoor, in-country public exhibition for the women’s national team since the 1979 revolution—survived at least four postponements due to tumultuous negotiations over the German players’ visas. “It is a miracle that we are here,” Najafi told Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in late Apr 06, when Al-Dersimspor, film crew and entourage finally touched down in Tehran. While many of Al-Dersimspor’s players have Islamic backgrounds, cultural adjustments still were required.

Players received final instructions on board the plane, according to FAZ‘s Swantje Karich, who accompanied the group (“Neunzig Minuten Freiheit,” 4 May 06):

In Iran women do not give their hand to men. Eye contact with men should be avoided. A principle: as a woman one should react rather than act. Now it is time to put on the headcloth. Some players are familiar with the parental and religious demands … [but] no one wants to be the first to put it on. There is some internal rebellion. Shame and uncertainty shows up on their faces.

Adjustment might have been the theme for Al-Dersimspor’s visit. Tehran is 1,500m (4,921′) above sea level and often cloaked in smog. The Kreuzberg players were concerned about their performance in “trackies” and head covering, although Valerie Assmann told FAZ: “It is not so bad as we thought. It feels as if one were under water, because the headcloth rests so snugly against the ears.”

BSV Al-Dersimspor, with team president, in playing attire in Tehran. For more pictures, see an online essay at the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung website. (Andrea Geiger | FAZ)

Quotations from the Quran were broadcast before the game began, as Najafi began his wait outside the stadium. Taking a 2–0 halftime lead, Al-Dersimspor’s players removed their head coverings and danced in the changing room, experiencing “a manifestation of the liberty of women in Iran” when permitted such relaxation away from the public eye. The game concluded 2–2—“a beautiful result,” writes Karich. “That was it: 90 minutes of freedom and a little bit more.” Afterward, the Iranian and German players shared a meal and exchanged jerseys.

With the first match concluded, planning began on the return fixture, billed beforehand by the German Interior Ministry as a “meeting of cultures” and part of Germany’s ongoing “dialogue with Islam” (Saeid Najar Nobari, “Berlin Football Officials Hail Iran’s Women Soccer Match as Promoting Cultural Dialogue,” Islamic Republic News Agency, May 11). Similar delays and negotiations over symbolic particulars—the manner of players’ dress, the flag under which Iranian players would enter the stadium—resulted in scheduling of the game for Jun 1 of this year, more than a year after the first meeting.

On the night before the event at a stadium adjacent to the Viktoria Park Biergarten in Kreuzberg, Marlene Assmann learned by e-mail from Iranian authorities that the match could not take place due to “technical problems.” By the next day, a sign had been posted at the stadium entrance: “Freundschaftsspiel abgesagt” (Friendly game canceled). What would have been the Iranian women’s team’s first appearance in the West since 1979 had been lost to murky bureaucratic fumblings in the Islamic regime. Yet Najafi, himself familiar with long-running disputes over mounting theatrical productions in Iran—“These girls can’t get a football match, and I can’t show my work,” he tells Exberliner—ventures that Iranian officials in Berlin, rather than Tehran, proved to be the ultimate bottleneck.

That the event also corresponded, according to Der Spiegel, to an annual morals campaign enforcing clothing restrictions in Iran (Anne Haeming, “Iran Cancels Women’s Football Game in Berlin,” Spiegel Online, Jun 1) was of less importance, in Najafi’s reading, than objections among officials at the Iranian embassy. Exiled Iranians in Berlin planned a small demonstration before the game, and German players intended to compete minus the coverings they had worn in Iran.

These developments meant heart-rending disappointments for the organizers and players, but accentuated the film project’s use of women’s football to illustrate the realities of daily life for women in contrasting societies. “In our film,” Najafi tells Basil Glew-Galloway of Exberliner (“A Game of Politics,” Sept 07), “you can see the German girls’ side.”

They are in the modern world, in Berlin, Germany. They just talk about football and their career in football. In Iran, the girls always talk about something else. They talk about their emotions surrounding football, their futures, whether or not they will even be able to continue playing, and the restrictions placed on them as women. The Iranian girls want to do something with their football, they want to change something. I think if their situation normalizes, they might be able to just play football, and just think about football. But for now, football is part of a larger reality for them.

“Female football in Iran is not just football,” he summarizes.

Najafi, Assmann and collaborators continue to prepare Football Under Cover for a first screening at the Berlinale in Feb 08—three years after the genesis of an idea.

Interview with Ayat Najafi

GG: You have done two short films on women’s football, The Forward’s Fear of the Penalty Kick, and Move It, both of which feature a woman player, Banafsheh Alavi. How did you find out about her and discover this interest in women’s football?

AN: The first time I heard about women’s football was from a European journalist … this was four years ago. It really interested me, first of all because I’m really a fan of football from childhood. I always loved football. I got to know about women’s football, but I didn’t know that female football was in Iran.

The second thing which interested me was I always followed women’s activities in Iran. When I heard about female football I thought that it had great potential. Then I tried to find some footballers, but it was really hard for me because of the culture of Iran, with the religious [restrictions]. So it wasn’t easy to reach them. I tried so hard, and the first female footballer that I could find was Banafsheh Alavi.

I told my idea about the short film to her, and she really liked it. We made the short film to show in the Berlinale Talent Campus, Move It. During the making of the film I really found her interesting. I found that she has a very, very strong character. She had something to say. I thought it might be interesting for a documentary film. …

GG: Tell us more about Banafsheh Alavi. How old is she? Does she live in Tehran? How long has she been playing football?

AN: Banafsheh Alavi is married. She is studying the English language in university. I think she started football as soon as they established women’s football. The thing is that she has loved football from childhood. And the most interesting thing about her was when she was a child, she was raised up like boys. … The first time that she found an article in the newspaper that they established women’s football—that was nine years ago—she joined a club. She had some friends, and [Iran] established a league. For the very first national team that [Iran] established for female football, she was a member. She played both in attack, as a forward, and also as goalkeeper.

GG: Move It involves Banafsheh juggling a ball down a street, and a car is tracking her movement, following her. She ends up in a wider space, an open area. That submission was made to the Berlin competition to show her passion for the game?

AN: The film is four minutes. What I wanted to show with the movie is exactly this passion of football and passion of being in a match, but at the same time the loneliness of this girl—no support, no one really wants to hear about her passion. So I asked her to play along the street, followed by a boy. … This boy listens to football from the radio of his car. Together with the voice of this football match, which we hear from the radio, then she went to this wide shot, to this football stadium, which is a kind of football pitch for training. When you see the whole thing, you can understand that Banafsheh going through this football field is just her imagination. So it’s not a real field, it’s just the imagination of Banafsheh at that moment. She imagines that she enters a real football [field]. At the same time, you hear the voice from a stadium, that people are cheering.

GG: Did she participate in the first match with the Berlin team [28 Apr 06] that features in Football Under Cover?

AN: Unfortunately not. … Banafsheh has a very strong and independent character. It’s what I admire and appreciate. But being independent in Iran is always problematic. She had some problem with the football federation, and so she wasn’t in the match. So we had to choose another girl [to take her place]. … Unfortunately, [Banafsheh is] off the national football team.

GG: This match in Apr 06 was the first outdoor competition in public for the Iranian team.

AN: In Iran. Before that they had a match in Jordan. …

Produced by Al Jazeera’s English-language service, “Egypt—Bending It Like Beckham” aired on the Everywoman program on Jul 26. “If my fiancé [sic] wanted to play football, I would forbid her,” says a male player.

GG: Explain how difficult it was to make that first match happen. I understand that the arrangements were complicated.

AN: Extremely complicated [laughs]. In my opinion the biggest problem with female football for the fundamentalist party of Iran is [dealing with] taboo. Not only football, but whatever women do is still like a taboo. The problem in Iran is that the fundamentalists are not as strong as a majority; they have just a minority. The problem is this minority has a real power, has a great control of everything, like the money, like the army. I can say that this minority has this control. So then you go, for example, in Iran and ask people, ask the normal men, and talk with them about female football, they all like it.

We saw a documentary about female football in Egypt [see above]. There was a scene [in which] young boys start talking about [women's] football, and they are all against it. But if you ask the normal people in Iran, ask their opinion about female football, they are all for it. And we have it in our film. We talk to the normal people, and they all like it. What is actually against [women's football] is this fundamentalist idea. The most important part of our project was to convince them that there is nothing against [the fundamentalists]. It’s just about football. There is nothing political behind this. It’s nothing against religion. In reality, there is nothing. When you talk about female football, it’s just a sport. It’s right that women also can do that, and they do it very well. It’s very beautiful, very nice. The biggest problem was to break this taboo for [the fundamentalists].

The other problem was they didn’t like the men being involved. They said, for example, if you want to [film] them, you use women cinematographers, female crew. In the stadium they just let the women come, so it was out of our control.

Another problem was the regime change [in Aug 05]. When we started the project, in the very beginning, Iran had a new government. The new government in Iran is hardline, so to deal with them was really hard. We had the problem to convince them again, so we had to start from the very beginning. The new people were against everything. These kind of ideas were risky for them to accept. So this taboo that I spoke about was strong. It was really hard for us to get the visas for the German team to come to Iran. It was [almost] impossible. We faced so many problems. But fortunately there are still some people in the Iranian regime that are a fan of this kind of thing and still believe in reforms. I can tell you that in Iran when we embarked on the project there were two groups. One group was totally for the idea, and one group was totally against the idea. Fortunately the people for the idea could win, and we could make it.

The people in the Iranian football federation were all great fans of women’s football. … The female football section and the international section all did their best to let it happen. The biggest problem were the people behind the problem: we didn’t know who they were, they were unreachable. …

GG: So there is an invisible clerical element in Iran that is creating those difficulties, similar to the clerical group creating a controversy over women’s being able to watch men’s games in Iran—the topic of Jafar Panahi‘s film Offside [see 28 Mar 07].

AN: There are these taboos I told you about. For example, in Jafar Panahi’s film we see very clearly that women can go to cinema together with men. So what’s the difference between cinema and football? There is no logical thinking behind this. The only problem is this taboo.

GG: Tell us about the German team, BSV Al-Dersimspor. It was quite bold and courageous of them to be involved in this film and to take on the trip to Iran.

AN: At the Berlinale, one of the footballers [Marlene Assmann] made a film [Der Weg ist das Spiel] about the whole team. … The thing I like about the German team is they play football just because of football and nothing else. … They want to be a team, like real sisters. The trip to Iran was really important for them, because they could do something else with football. This is a really multicultural team, people from Turkey, people from Germany, some Greeks, some Arabs, some people from Eastern Europe. But when you go inside the team, you really feel the great friendship between them. In my opinion, they are the only team that has this character. … When you go to other areas in Berlin—I followed some of [Dersimspor's] matches—the girls are just German. They are one of the few female teams that have some foreigners. This multicultural base of the team has a very important role in the film.

GG: So that there were some Muslim players on the German team perhaps helped the match take place.

AN: The team was really open to the idea. When Marlene came with the idea to the team … they said, “We want to make it.” We had great support from them. The date changed sometimes, and we had the visa problems, but they all said, “We want to make it.” For example, they had to postpone some of their matches in the league, and at the end of the league they had [a backlog] of matches—every two days they had a match.

GG: Some of Dersimspor’s players have backgrounds in Islam, but they might not have experienced what it’s like to be in Iran with the restrictions and to play in head coverings.

AN: Actually, they know about the Islamic rules, because the basis of the team belongs to an Islamic community in Berlin. … But it’s not something you can find in the team. When you meet the girls, there is nothing Islamic about them. But they appreciate the Islamic situation, because they know it from their background. Playing football [in Iran] is something different, something new for them. … They didn’t know how they could use their skills in the football field with these long shorts, long sleeves, and the scarf. It was a really new experience for them.

GG: There were spectators, all women, at the football match in Iran. Presumably you were not allowed to watch or to participate in the filmmaking?

AN: It’s true. It was the hardest moment for me. I tried for this match for more than nine months, and at the end I couldn’t be involved. So it felt kind of sad for me. I couldn’t wait to see the film of the match. For me as a filmmaker, it wasn’t so easy to accept that the film couldn’t be under my control. For me the most terrible moment—it’s a sensitive moment—was not as a filmmaker but as a human. I fell in love with these footballers. They had all these problems, and they just want to play football. With all the problems that the regime makes, and authority makes, and Islamic dress makes, they just want to play football. I love this effort. At the very end I couldn’t be involved. I was really nervous outside the stadium when I had nothing to do.

GG: So you stood outside the stadium and listened?

AN: We couldn’t listen. It wasn’t clear. The assistant director of the film called me every five minutes … but you want to see, you want to feel the atmosphere. Also as a football fan, no one can report the football for you. You want to see for yourself. When your favorite team plays, you prefer to go to the stadium than stay home and watch it on television. For me just to hear what was going on, it wasn’t enough.

GG: The second game that was to take place on Jun 1 was canceled by these secret, unknown channels in Tehran. Have you learned any more about what was behind the match being canceled?

AN: It’s very hard to say. With the totalitarian regime we always have this problem. We are not really clear. This time the fundamentalism could win against this reform element. I think the Iranian embassy in Berlin made this problem. It’s just my own idea, not a reality maybe. It’s what I found out myself.

Because from the very beginning when the team contacted the embassy, the embassy wasn’t so cooperative. For example, they didn’t like the stadium … there were some Iranians, some opposition, that wanted to have a demonstration. In my imagination, the people in the Iranian embassy sent a letter to Iran and convinced them to cancel the match. When IRIFF, the Iranian football federation, bought the ticket for them—[the cancellation] came on the day of their flight—it means that they had permission from the Iranian side. Without the permission inside the country, they couldn’t buy the ticket. From outside the only source that could make the cancellation was the embassy.

In the first match, we also had this problem. The Iranian embassy was not so cooperative. In the first match we could pass this obstacle because we were inside Iran. When you are in Iran the decision of the people in Iran is more important than the decision of people in the embassy. … When the Iranian team wanted to come to Berlin, because it was out of Iran, the decision of people in the embassy was more important than the decision of people inside the country.

At an August friendly in Tehran, Iran, in red, scores en route to a 5–2 victory over Jordan.

GG: Did the film and the football matches become more political and more contentious than you expected at the beginning, or was it always going to happen that way?

AN: As long as this fundamentalism exists in Iran, every human activity would be seen as political, unfortunately. … Not only women’s activities, but any kind of independent activity in front of this fundamentalism would be political. …

In the first match in the West Asian competition [on Sept 3], [Iran] won 13–0 against Syria. Two years ago in the first match against Syria, they won 5–0. In two years, they had no real matches, [but] they have had great development. So just imagine them with a better organization, better experience. They can reach the international level very soon. But unfortunately this fundamentalism behind them really doesn’t like them to improve, to go further.

In my opinion, as long as this fundamentalism exists, these footballers will have this political situation [with] them. And I’m so sorry about that.

GG: The cancellation of the second match was very disappointing to you and to all the players, but in a way does it make your film project stronger, because it proves the point you are making about restrictions on women playing the game?

AN: The reason that we made this film was to have the female football in Iran. My main goal is to see that female football in Iran has its own development, finds its own way, and they can play football without problems. It made my film more strong, but I’m not happy with that. I think my film has its own strength, and it works without these problems. So I hope finally to see that they really can play football and go to international matches without facing this fundamentalism. That would be my dream.


  • Football Under Cover premieres at the 2008 Berlinale on Feb 10. It releases to cinemas in Germany on Apr 10.
  • Photographer Olivia Arthur presents images of Iranian women that defy Western stereotypes (Isabel Albiston, “Iranian Women: Beyond the Veil,” Telegraph Magazine, Nov 10). Of periodic government crackdowns on female dress, Arthur says they are farcical. “The fashion police stop women in the street and tell them to put their headscarves on properly and not to wear make-up. But in Teheran, a city of 15 million people, where most young women wear make-up and nail varnish, the police can only stop a few. The next day everyone will come out and do exactly the same thing.”
  • The Iranian women’s team lost the first leg of a 2008 Asian Cup qualifier Oct 20 in Gurgaon, India, outside New Delhi (Garima Verma, “Iran Lose, but Their Voices Are Heard,” Times News Network, Oct 20). Despite the 1–3 loss to India, Iran, according to the reporter, had its backing in the stands—“30 Persian girls” who created “one helluva atmosphere which would have even put the aura of a guys’ match to shame.” “Women in our country would even eclipse men when it comes to living the game,” Iran defender Katayoun Khosrowyar told the India Times writer.

About the Author

John Turnbull founded The Global Game in 2003. He was lead editor for The Global Game: Writers on Soccer (University of Nebraska Press, 2008) and has also written on soccer for Afriche e Orienti (Bologna, Italy), the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the New York Times Goal blog, Soccer and Society, So Foot (Paris) and When Saturday Comes. His essay "Alone in the Woods: The Literary Landscape of Soccer's 'Last Defender' " in World Literature Today was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Also for World Literature Today he edited a special section on women's soccer, "World Cup/World Lit 2011," before the Women's World Cup in Germany. The section appeared in the May-June issue. His next project is a book on soccer and faith.

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  1. [...] material for the documentary Football Under Cover (see interview with director Ayat Najafi, 29 Sept 07) celebrates the display of “Frauenpower” in its chronicle of an Apr 06 friendly between [...]

  2. [...] Football Under Cover (Germany 2008, dir. David Assmann and Ayat Najafi) | See 29 Sept 07. [...]

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