Iran | In clothing meant to conceal, football becomes ‘a means of fighting’

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Football Under Cover chronicles both an unlikely football match and the process behind chronicling that football match. According to the directors’ statement, the movie “does not document something … which others do but rather accompanies and illustrates, even makes possible, what we ourselves do.” (3:58)

Toward the end of a Jun 17 National Public Radio interview, Marlene Assmann of BSV Al-Dersimspor discloses that her multicultural Kreuzberg side from Berlin again will brave Islamic strictures for a second friendly match in Iran.

Assmann competed in the 2–2 draw on 28 Apr 06 at Ararat Stadium in Tehran that featured the Iranian national women’s team against the German amateurs (see 29 Sept 07). The match, along with the intense diplomatic maneuvering required to make it happen, forms the backbone of the documentary Football Under Cover, which has now received its North American festival premieres at HotDocs in Canada and at Silverdocs in Washington, D.C.

The Dersimspor team, affiliated with a German Turkish men’s club, has not rested since its involvement in what was intended as a two-match, home-and-home series. The second game, scheduled for 1 Jun 07 in Berlin, never occurred. It was canceled the night before, although more than 2,000 tickets had been sold. Iranian authorities cited “technical problems,” which Najafi interpreted as pre-match anxiety on the part of Iranian embassy staff in Germany.

In any case, Dersimspor has continued its mission to bridge cultures that it feels are consigned to “parallel universes” inside Germany. “[I]t is very unusual for Germans with and without a migratory background to cross these community lines and build real friendships on the other side,” says the club in a mission statement. “Playing soccer together helps our players to overcome the mutually existing stereotypes, but also demonstrates to the outside world that Islamic women too can play soccer—with or without a headscarf.”

Dersimspor has formed a youth division to enable nine- and ten-year-old girls to “take part in competitions at league level, even if they come from conservative families who would oppose their being athletes in another club.”

In addition to the NPR segment, worth digesting is the translation of an interview from Radio Eins on Jan 18. Najafi and Assmann make clear just how much of a fight that Iranian women face to play football and other sports. The women do play organized games—the Iranian women’s sports magazine Shirzanan showcases a range of different activity, including baseball—but in private. “The difference between life in public and private there is like that between day and night,” says Football Under Cover co-director David Assmann, brother of Marlene.

The struggle for spaces to play football, for a stadium, for a league, represents, according to Najafi, “a constant battle for their dreams and everything that they love.”

Dersimspor in its ambition to reach beyond its own borders as well as the Football Under Cover production team in its goal of staging an unprecedented post-revolutionary sporting encounter had to proceed much of the time on belief. Says Marlene Assmann:

We didn’t even know initially which path was the right one to pursue. We were working in a hundred different directions. There had never been a game like it and we didn’t know what to do to make it happen. So we flew to Iran without a visa, without it even being clear that they would let us in at the airport. There were often moments where things seemed pretty hopeless but we thought we can’t just give up like this and we’re not going to let others decide whether the game should take place or not. We just kept on going, somehow.

Similarly, in organization Dersimspor must stay frugal. “Down to every single photocopy we have to find sponsors or (more often) pay ourselves,” reads a fund-raising statement. “The struggle for money to … keep us running is a constant hassle.”

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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