By Arash Sedighi
It matters little to the game of football how players are attired, but the standardisation and attention to detail in regulating even this aspect of the game is tight. Sleeves have to be of the right length and sponsors' logos of the correct dimensions. Is it any surprise, then, that Fifa has taken issue with the Iranian FA's interpretation of a suitable kit for women's teams?
The Iranian national women's team was banned from a qualifying match for the 2012 London Olympics against Jordan because of the Islamic clothing worn by the players. In Iran, the decision has been criticised by everyone from the head of women's affairs at the Iranian Football Federation to President Ahmadinejad himself.
Discussion around Islamic clothing in international competitions is a recurring issue. In 2010, the Iranian women's youth team was refused participation in the Youth Olympics in Singapore because of the headscarf. Negotiations between the Iranian Football Federation and Fifa followed, and a compromise was reached where the team was allowed to wear headgear that did not cover the neck, allowing Iran to return to the field.
The Iranian team that came out to play in Jordan this year wore the same headgear previously given the green light by Fifa. Ali Kafashian, the head of the Iranian Football Federation, wrote in a letter to Sepp Blatter that Iran had received only one document from Fifa relating to the kit since the 2010 Youth Olympics. That document, received on March 7 2011 (before the game against Jordan) confirmed the agreement between the two parties from the year before. The only addition to the team's outfit was in fact their shirts, which now covered their necks.
It is understandable that some media reports quote "health and safety" as the basis of Fifa's discontent, while others state that the controversy is because of the prohibition of "religious messages" in the outfits of the players.
When it comes to the Islamic headscarf, Fifa is rarely clear on the specifics. Often it cites law four of the laws of the game, which specifies the basic compulsory equipment of players. This law bans dangerous items (such as jewellery) and any equipment that has "political, religious or personal slogans or statements".
Let us ignore for a moment that the law specifies "slogans or statements", and include in that category (for the sake of argument) any item that has some religious significance. It should be mentioned that covering the body, in this case with the shirt, is as important a tradition (and a more commonly shared one) in the Islamic world than the headscarf; the scarf does not have "more" religious significance than the shirt.
Nevertheless, the acceptance by Fifa of the adapted head covering of the women's youth team in Singapore shows one of two things: either Fifa, perhaps with religious experts, accepted that new head cover was not "Islamic" and therefore did not come under the ban on religious clothing, or the "renegotiated" kit satisfied Fifa's concerns about health and safety.
If the adapted headcover was thought to be safe, all we have left is the shirt. Kafashian writes: "It says nowhere in law four that our shirts are unsafe or dangerous" and adds "Many of the [other] teams use similar shirts". Indeed, it would be difficult for Fifa to argue that the reason behind the referees' decision in Jordan was safety concerns over the high-neck collar – remember the recent ban on snoods hadn't come into effect. In the eyes of the Iranians, the high collars satisfied all the conditions for law four.
For many in the Iranian press, the Bahraini nationality of the referees was crucial to the matter, considering the Iranian government's hostility to that country's violent repression of recent pro-democracy protests against the Gulf-backed monarchy.
Whatever the reasons for the referees' decision and Fifa's discontent, by leaving the issue until the last minute, and undermining earlier agreements between the Iranian Football Federation and Fifa, the organisation is responsible for denying a team the opportunity to qualify for the Olympic games and must take responsibility for an error that once again undermines its very existence.
Fifa states that its role is to promote friendly relations between members, to stand against discrimination of any kind and to promote the game of football globally – surely this was the perfect opportunity to live up to those principles? But instead we have to ask ourselves, if it indeed matters what footballers wear, who has the right to decide? Is it Blatter, who thinks "female players are pretty" and should therefore wear tighter shorts when playing football, or his "council of wisdom", still awaiting its first female member?
The Women's World Cup 2015 is to be held in Canada, a country whose football federation banned 11-year-old Asmahan Mansour from playing in her headscarf in 2007. Considering Fifa's latest move, they might as well state it clearly now: hijabis need not apply.
This commentary was published in The Guardian on 13/06/2011