Thursday, 27 February 2014

Iran's Sexist Football Issues

I wrote this article for the Football Blogging Awards...

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Iran's Sexist Football Issues

Think back to your earliest football memory, the first time you watched a game on TV, in the stands, or the first time you kick a ball...

For me, it was aged five, I got my first ever full kit with my brothers. Unfortunately, it was a Manchester United replica and my mother had to sew the badges on. We spent all our childhood freely playing at the local parks from sunrise to sunset. As for spectating, it wasn't until I was 7 years old that I vaguely recall watching England playing at Euro 1996. My first real memories of live football on TV though, were from the 1998 France World Cup. I'll never forget Ronaldo and Brazil were immense, there was the legend that is Zidane, and of course, Michael Owen's wonder goal against Argentina. Wow! I had never seen such excitement and passion, such skill and team spirit over that magical tournament. The chance to watch a professional match didn't come until I was 14, Middlesbrough vs Arsenal in the Premier League. I had formed a new friendship at high school in North Yorkshire, with Hannah, she was a Boro season ticket holder (in fact she still is to this day, even in their current decline). She promised that she'd always take me to Arsenal games when they were playing up north, it was like a dream come true. And so she did, although it didn't last long, as a few years later Middlesbrough were relegated and since haven't returned to the top flight. 

But never mind, I've managed to see plenty more games since then, including over in America and more recently at the Olympics. I still have souvenir pictures, ticket stubs and matchday programmes from them all. But more importantly, it's the memories that last forever-walking through turnstiles, climbing the steps with fellow supporters, soaking up the atmosphere in the crowd. Nothing beats the real thing, seeing your heroes in the flesh and witnessing your team play through 90 minutes of the game you love. Due to the general costs of matchday experiences, I've never made it a regular occurrence to go to live games. I'd much rather be down the pub on a Saturday afternoon winding up the locals with my football "banter" and watching all the scores come in. But no matter where you watch football, as long as you have a love for the game, you go through the trials and tribulations of being a fan. The tearing out of your hair when your team loses or jumping on the furniture when your team scores. Nothing beats those moments of passion, sharing it with others and doing it all over again the next weekend. That's my brief recollection of a growing passion for the beautiful game, the experiences I've had so far and no doubt millions of fans like me around the world have their own unique stories I'm sure. 

Football is the most popular sport in the world and unites people of all backgrounds. But what about those people not as fortunate as ourselves? Those people who have to fight for the privilege of playing? Those people who are beaten for wanting to enjoy the same sport that the rest of us take for granted? The story I want to share with you, is that of Iranian women. 

Iran has a national women's side, yet by law, the country doesn't allow female fans to watch men's games. Equally, it doesn't allow men to watch the women's games. Iranians have started an online campaign against the ban on women in stadiums, including the use of social media via Twitter and Facebook. The ban has been in place for over 30 years since the Islamic revolution, with many believing football stadiums are a dangerous environment for women. Those who chose to demonstrate against it, do so at risk as the use of social media and demonstrating is not allowed in Iran.
Speaking to the BBC, Nasrin Afzali says: "We are part of the nation - so we should participate in these national celebrations." She has been involved in campaigning since she was a university student 10 years ago. Once, she managed to smuggle her way into the national football stadium to watch a game. Another time she was not so lucky - and says she was detained and beaten for handing out leaflets.
Some women have gone to the extent of dressing as men to try and sneak into stadiums. Film director, Jafar Panahi, illustrates these struggles in the 2006 comedy film 'Offside'. The film was inspired by Panahi's daughter who attended a game and screening of the film wasn't allowed in Iran. On April 24th 2008, President Ahmadinejad ordered the ban to be lifted on women attending football games, however this decision later got reversed by other senior figures. Four years later, Iran hosted the Asian Football Confederation U-16 championships in 2012, which gave women the chance to go along and watch matches due to AFC rules against discrimination amongst spectators based on gender.

More recently, FIFA president Sepp Blatter spoke up regarding the matter after a two day trip to Tehran. Prior to the visit in November 2013, Iranians used the hashtag #IRWomenStadium to get in touch with Blatter via social media, requesting that he raised the issues with authorities in Iran. Speaking afterwards he further added: "You have developed so much women's football here, that it should say that women also can go to the stadium."

It's not the first time FIFA have had involvement with Iranian football. The women's team were were briefly banned in 2011 for wearing Hijabs. The national team have again been in the media spotlight in February 2014, after it was revealed that four players in their women's team were actually men. The Iran professional women's league now have to carry out random gender verification tests on players. Women's football is becoming increasingly popular in Iran ever since the Iranian revolution in 1979. More has been done since to develop the sport within the country, including organised amateur competitions and now the national team competes at an international level. Although there is still room to improve, as female players are still not allowed to train on pitches of good quality, even the 40,000 seater Azadiye Stadium that was being built for the women's national team, due to be completed in 2009, remains unfinished.

Iran isn't the only country to have these issues, however recent media coverage is raising awareness and it can only be a positive step forward for women's rights and football. Think back to my request at the top of this page.....those football memories you have. Millions of children across the globe never get those memories, especially females. I refer to previous articles I've wrote such as 'The Mighty girls' and 'The Beautiful game' which highlight the levels of abuse, discrimination and poverty that women in deprived countries face. Their common escape from all these problems is the joy that being able to enjoy participating and watching football brings them. So the next time you see one of these articles or petitions fighting for the rights of those worse off from yourself, please read and share it. You never know who you might be helping and what positive effect you may be having on someone else's life. 

Thursday, 13 February 2014

Saturday, 8 February 2014

Manchester City Women's Football Club Relaunch

After the recent Manchester City Women's FC relaunch, I managed to speak to a handful of City players regarding their upcoming season and the club's new signings.

Jill Scott is a central midfielder, recently signed from Everton Ladies FC in 2013. Jill started her professional playing career at Sunderland in 2004 and since then has gained over 70 England caps and 5 Team GB appearances. Jill's past experience as Everton's captain and her versatility on the pitch will be a huge bonus to the team.

Q. What was it that made you sign for Manchester City after such a long time being a key player at Everton?

It was difficult for me to leave Everton after being there for 7 years, also as I was captain last year as well. I just felt it was time for a change, obviously 7 years at a club is a long time, and then I heard that Man City were interested. I saw the plans they put in and it just blew me away really. The whole professional attitude of the club and they want to take the women’s team to where the men’s team are now, so it’s what attracted me.

Q. You’re joining quite a few fellow internationals at Manchester now, do you think it will strengthen the England team with a group of you all training and playing more regularly?

Yes, its great to see Toni, Steph and Karen here from England. Training everyday will only develop stronger partnerships between ourselves which will benefit man city and obviously if we keep getting selected for England it will have an impact on the international team as well.

Q. Who do you see as your rivals in the upcoming FA WSL season?

It’s difficult because as I've said its great having media days like this and inspiring young girls to play football. But at the same time, we haven’t yet kicked a ball, so I know it’s a cliché thing to say, but were just going to take it one day at a time. I do think we have a very strong team, but football is a funny game and sometimes matches can go either way. Obviously the likes of Liverpool, Arsenal and even Chelsea look strong so I expect those to be up the top of the table.


Toni Duggan is a centre forward who also joined the club from Everton Ladies FC in 2013. After 6 years gaining positive recognition at domestic and international level, Toni is proving to be an exciting talent in front of goal.

Q. You began your adult playing career at Everton, was it difficult to leave your parent club and also hometown of Liverpool?

I was settled at Everton but I just felt it was time for a change and then Man City came and approached me. As soon as I saw their plans, I knew that was the decision I was going to make. I think seeing what’s gone on since and the signings they've made, it has just proved my decision as correct.

Q. You scored an impressive 13 goals last season, do you see yourself being able to knock Natasha Dowie from the top goalscorer position next season?

I don’t like to compete against others to be honest, I just want to score as many goals as I can and help the team.

Q. You’re joining quite a few fellow internationals at Manchester now, do you think it will strengthen the England team with you all training and playing more regularly?

It will, the more players training day in and day out together will only improve England, so we’ll have to wait and see. You obviously build relationships and partnerships with players and I think it shows on the pitch.

Q. Do you look to any of the men's team as inspiration?

Yes, I like Aguero, he's a great talent. I'd love to be able to play as well as him.

Q. It was mentioned today a lot about Man City going out more into the community, do you think you will be playing a big part in that?

Yes, hopefully we can get on board with that, as the men’s team do a lot in the community already. Wherever there is going to be the men’s team doing events, we’ll hope to send some players along too and get more girls on board. I think man city have made it clear that they want more women involved in the club, whether that be part of the women’s team, supporters at games or just generally more girls participating in football.

Q. What style of play is there within the team would you say? 

One thing I've noticed in the first week is that everyone at the club is sticking to the same philosophy. Whether it’s in the under-8 team, the women’s team or the men’s first team, we all have the same strategy, which I think is a great aim for the club to have. We've done a similar thing in the England team, we all know the system inside out and it’s proven to work. You've seen how well Man City have been playing recently, hopefully we can live up to that standard as well.

Q. How easy is it for new players like yourselves to gel with the rest of the team? 

In women’s football you know of each other anyway, whether it’s with the club or on international duty. There’s a few ex-Everton players I know from when I was younger here now at Man City. We've all gelled quickly and hopefully it’ll continue. We've worked hard both on and off the field and hopefully the results will show.


Steph Houghton is the new club captain and proves to be yet another versatile and experienced signing for City. With over 40 England caps and 5 Team GB appearances, Steph has played professionally for Sunderland, Leeds and Arsenal in her career.

Q. You've certainly had an interesting and experienced career so far, what tempted you to sign?

I think first and foremost it’s a new challenge. I've been at arsenal for 3 years now, but as soon as I spoke with Man City, I got the feeling it was going to be something special. I want to be here from the beginning, not come in 2 years down the line, so to be part of something so professional was a big draw to the club. Everything they said a few months ago has come into place. It's our first week here and being a full time professional, training everyday and being part of the club, everyone has made me feel very welcome. The decision I made proved to be the right one.

Q. How serious can MCWFC contend for the FA WSL title this year?

The plans for the club are long term, so this season will be about getting to know each other as a team and the staff, just taking one game at a time. There’s no pressure for us to win a trophy or the title. Of course we want to compete and win football games, but to say that we are contenders for the FAWSL title is too early.

Q. Are you excited by the prospect of one day possibly playing Champions League football in Europe?

Yes of course. Toni and I have both played in the Champions League before and those are the competitions you want to be involved in as a player, playing against the best teams in Europe. As players, we want to be playing the best players in Europe every week and that’s definitely an ambition of the club also. Maybe not necessarily this season or the season after, but we’ll be aiming to get there eventually.

Q. As the new captain Steph, what will you bring to the team?

I think I’m a bit quiet and let the likes of Toni and Jill do the talking in the changing room. I think it’s not going to change me as a player being captain, as I always try to lead by example and give 100%. In the dressing room, everyone’s got to be leaders really and take that on board if there is a problem or issue, I’m sure we can all speak about it and get it resolved.


Nicki Harding (Defender) and Andie Worrall (Goalkeeper) are two of City's most experienced players having started their careers in the late 1990's, they both manage full time jobs as well as playing for City.

Q. With new signings coming into the club, how serious do you think you can contend for the league title?

NH: I think anything’s possible, looks at men’s football, Man United were league champions last season and now they’re struggling. Anything is possible if you put your mind into it and work hard, then sure. If everyone puts that extra bit of effort in, we’ll get to where we want to be.

AW: I think a lot of teams have got similar signings and it seems a lot more of an open league this coming year, more than ever before. Its good to have possibly 6 or 7 teams competing for the title rather than 3 or 4.

Q. Whats the atmosphere like in the changing rooms at the moment with the excitement of new signings coming in and being part of the FA WSL this year?

NH: I'd say I’m a bit of a joker.
AW: we've only been together a week really so we've still got to see each others personalities as we get on. Were going away in a week so we’ll get a chance to bond more.
NH: Also training 2-3 times a week will makes tighter as a group.

Q. Some of you have full time jobs as well as playing and training, how do you find the balance?

AW: Nicky and I work full time 40 hours a week on top of training so it can be hard but the sacrifices are worth it.
NH: There’s no added pressure, as a team we all want to do well.

Q. Who do you see as your rivals in the FA WSL?

AW: Everyone will want to beat city this year.
NH: There are a lot of new players moving clubs so it seems more even now. If you look at the England team, its split between the 8 FAWSL clubs which is really good for women’s football.
AW: Nicky and I  remember the days when Fulham were the only full time club, so now it’s great to see more teams coming in and training full time.

Q. What's your view on the lack of media coverage in the women's game? Does it frustrate you as players when your games aren't covered?

NH: It has improves with the likes of Twitter, but I think it needs to be shown on a free channel. If the kids start watching it, they’ll want to go the games and it’ll start getting more publicity. Look at the Olympics on the BBC for instance.
AW: The legacy from the Olympics was amazing, even I wouldn't watch much women’s football. But to see all the games shown on TV and 30-40,000 spectators was great.

Q. Do you think it's time the focus shifted from men's to women's football now?

AW: I think the expectations should be different for example the physicality between a man and a woman is different so you’re gong to get a different game, which I think people should appreciate. A lot of players aren't full time either, if we all were, you’d see a different game. Professional men’s players have advantages like having chefs to cook there meals and they get to train more regularly and rest between games which benefits them.


Betsy Hassett has joined the club from New Zealand having also played in America and Germany. She was a key player in New Zealand's progress at the London 2012 Olympics.

Q. What was it that made you want to move across the world and sign for Manchester City?

Well I was looking to come and play in England anyway, especially for a club that has a good vision, good facilities and this seemed the best place for me to come.

Q. How easy is it for new players like yourselves to gel with the rest of the team?

I've got national duty soon, so it’ll take time to gel but its good, were starting pre-season early so everyone can get use to each other.

Q. Does you see different styles of women's football in other countries that you've played in?

Each country is different but from what I've seen, everyone looks pretty good. It’ll take some time for English football to get to the level USA and Germany are at, but players keep coming to the FA WSL because of the set up, so it is improving.

Q. Do you follow English football at all? Is there a player or team in particular that stands out for you?

I've watched a bit, but in no it’s not broadcast like the men’s. I like David Silva and want to play like him.


Thanks to all players involved and MCFC for the photos. Thanks also goes to my fellow journalist, Ruth Dacey, for her assistance with the interviews. Good luck to MCWFC for the coming season!

Saturday, 1 February 2014

The Sky Blues lead a revolution...

...raising the bar in women's football.

Last week I attended the Manchester City Ladies FC relaunch event at the Etihad stadium, home of The Sky Blues. As previously mentioned in my blog column, I was there only a couple of months prior attending a Kick It Out 'Raise Your Game' event for women in football. That event focused on mentors giving amateur journalists, coaches, managers, women in every area of the game basically, advice and knowledge of how they made it in the world of football. From that experience alone, I felt Manchester City FC were keen to promote more about women's football and the whole day in general felt professional and organised.

The purpose of the relaunch was not only to unveil their new signings, but to express their desire and commitment as a club to change women's football. Under the new name 'Manchester Women's Football Club', head of women's development Gavin Makel, expressed the club's intent: "Manchester has never really had that clear pathway for women and girls football. Now we’ve got an elite women’s football club in the area, were going to hopefully help young girls who can benefit and have role models to aspire to and become players themselves in the future."

The team was founded in 1988 by City in the Community and officially formed a partnership with the men's side in 2012. Since their recent admission into the FA Women's Super League, the club has started to make real progress in expanding, with additional funding and resources being poured into the women's team. When asked about the progression of the club, Makel further added: "It’s been quite a long and lengthy process so far and we're finally here today which is fantastic. It all started round about a year ago with the application into the FA WSL being accepted. And then since the summer it has been a case of identifying players and giving ourselves a really strong brand as you’ve seen today and really treating the women’s game with the respect it deserves.........We've got a plan, its not short term, it is long term. We’ve got aspirations where we want to be as a football club that will be similar to what you see around here in the men’s game and in the academy."

Nick Cushing(MCWFC Manager), Leigh Wood(Women's Coach), Manuel Pellegrini(MCFC Manager), Patrick Viera(Elite Squad Manager), Jason Kreis(NY City FC Manager), Claudio Reyna(NY City FC Director)

Head coach of the men's team, Manuel Pellegrini and the Head Coach of the Elite Development Squad, Patrick Viera were also present. Viera reiterated the club's desire to make women's football more popular and increase participation through community programmes, youth development, scouting, coaching and sharing vital resources as a club. This wasn't just a fancy display of interviews and video clips to try and impress the media present, but it was an honest insight into the pathway Manchester City FC are setting as a club and especially, their commitment to women and girls football.

Speaking on behalf of the FA, Rachel Pavlou and Alex Horne spoke about the Football Association's new 'FA Women and Girls' programme which aims to provide free coaching sessions to 14-25 year olds at grassroots level. Joining forces with Sport England, the Premier League and Football League, along with a £2.4m investment, they hope to make women's football the second biggest team sport by 2017.

"We (Man City FC) have a plan, it's not short term, it is long term."

New signings Toni Duggan, Jill Scott, Betsy Hassett, Karen Bardsley and captain Steph Houghton were all present at the event which also marked a reunion for the original team formed in 1988. Newly appointed captain Steph Houghton expressed her delight at joining City: "It's a new challenge for me, as soon as I spoke to Man City, I got the feeling there was something special and big about to happen. I wanted to join the club now from the beginning, not come in two years down the line." The ladies will play their first FA WSL season at the Regional Athletics Arena opposite the Etihad, then they will move to their own 7000 seater stadium in 2015.

Manchester City FC now co-own Melbourne Heat in Australia's A-League and New York City FC, who aim to be playing in the MLS by 2015. The club have been criticized in the past by many for throwing money into the game, buying expensive players rather than developing their team from youth academy up. However, sending high profile players, men and women, into local communities is what will inspire and drive young people to play the game. As a club they are united in bringing football to all corners of the globe, to all ages, genders and nationalities. City are leading the way in a new era of football, starting from grassroots all the way to professional levels and it's about time other professional clubs set a similar example and join the football revolution.