When Soccer and Religion Collide

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April 20, 2012 by Cesar Hernandez

London 2012

In just three short months, the 2012 London Summer Olympics will begin. Out of the hundreds of medals which are being sought after, one gold medal will be up for grabs for twelve teams in women’s football. These twelve, along with many other teams, took part in a long qualifying process in their respective FIFA confederations for the Olympics.

Amidst much controversy, the Iranian women’s national team was banned before their first game against Jordan in the 2nd round of qualifying by FIFA officials. The reasoning for FIFA was the use of the headscarf, or Hijab, by the team.  According to officials, the Hijab worn was a choking hazard and could therefore not be worn. However, if the women removed their headscarves they would be breaking Sharia Law in their home country. Who would win in a game between FIFA regulations and religion?

FIFA has always banned any type of religious expression on the football pitch. Certain exceptions have been made though in the past, including for the Iranian team. After multiple years of negotiations and compromising, FIFA agreed to let teams use a Hijab which covered the hair but did not cover any part of the neck and the ears.

These guidelines were followed up until the infamous game against Jordan when the team wore a more traditional Hijab which covered the neck and ears. Before the game could even start against their Jordanian counter-parts, the Iranian team was banned.

After the incident, the Iranian football federation made a comment stating: “We made the required corrections and played a match afterwards…We played the next round and were not prevented from doing so, and they didn’t find anything wrong. That meant that there are no obstacles in our path, and that we could participate in the Olympics.”

FIFA thought differently: “FIFA’s decision in March 2010 which permitted that players be allowed to wear a cap that covers their head to the hairline, but does not extend below the ears to cover the neck, was still applicable. Despite initial assurances that the Iranian delegation understood this, the players came out wearing the Hijab, and the head and neck totally covered, which was an infringement of the Laws of the Game. The match commissioner and match referee therefore decided to apply correctly the Laws of the Game, which ended in the match being abandoned.”

It is still hard to believe though that FIFA, under the ruling of Sepp Blatter, have good intentions for fashion in women’s soccer.  Sepp, who at one point was the president of the World Society of Friends of Suspenders (a group aiming to convince women to use suspenders, not pantyhose), made this comment about jerseys: “Let the women play in more feminine clothes like they do in volleyball. They could, for example, have tighter shorts. Female players are pretty, if you excuse me for saying so, and they already have some different rules to men–such as playing with a lighter ball. That decision was taken to create a more female aesthetic, so why not do it in fashion?”

Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad responded to the ban by claiming that FIFA were “Dictators who just wear the gown of democracy.”  Sounds a little strange coming from a politician who banned two players from the men’s national soccer team for political reasons.  Both of the players wore green wristbands to protest the re-election of Ahmadinejad, but that’s a different story. After the president’s comments, the uniform issue became a political one. The Iranian government and FIFA continued to butt heads while the women’s football team stood by, waiting for a decision.

Former head coach of the Iranian women’s national team, Shahrzad Mozafar, commented on the issue: “Our intention for wearing this attire is not to advertise our religion. We come from an Islamic country, and we observe Islamic dress codes. We can’t play soccer without our headscarves.”

Should FIFA embrace the traditional Hijab and make an exception for them? Would this set a bad precedent and allow an intertwining of soccer and religion which FIFA has been trying to avoid? What are your thoughts?


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