Iran is a nation that lives and breathes football and the women’s game there is no exception, the sport having rapidly increased in popularity among women and girls in recent years.
The country’s third-most popular women’s discipline, behind only volleyball and basketball, great strides have been made particularly in futsal, with Iran’s established four-tiered league structure no doubt a factor in the national side’s impressive fifth place at the last Women’s Futsal World Tournament in Spain in 2013.
Speaking to Women’s Soccer United following an assessment visit to the Middle Eastern nation, former Jordan and Australia head coach Hesterine de Reus was keen to highlight the progressive work being carried out behind the scenes on Iranian soil: “As part of an agreement between UEFA and the AFC, I’m delivering technical assistance to Asian countries as a part of their Women’s Assistance Program, which aims to raise standards in every member association,” said De Reus, who is a UEFA Pro License holder and member of UEFA’s Technical Study Group.
“Iran is a passionate football nation, for boys and girls alike, and I was very impressed by all the opportunities the IR Iran Football Federation (FFIRI) creates for women and girls, whether they be in football, futsal or beach football. Grassroots initiatives are very strong, with many activities held at schools across all the provinces. Girls can start playing five-a-side football from the age of eight, there are national club competitions set up at U-14, U-16, U-19 and senior level, and futsal academies across all age levels spanning 32 provinces,” explained De Reus, herself a former coach of the Netherlands’ U-15, U-17 and U-19 squads.
“The FFIRI Women’s Committee holds around 1,000 local competitions and 100 inter-university competitions a year and, in addition, there are 14 women working across various departments of the FFIRI, led by Dr.Farideh Khanom Shojaei, who is head of the federation’s Women’s Committee and a member of the AFC Women’s Committee too. I was also impressed by how FFIRI President Ali Kafashian took the time to meet our delegation to discuss women’s football, and by how well-informed he was.
“Everything is 100 per cent driven by women themselves,” continued the former PSV Eindhoven supremo. “All the coaches, referees and referees’ assistants involved in women’s football are female – with the exception of the national team’s goalkeeping coach Kourosh Estakhri. I see it as a strength that after hanging up their boots women’s footballers take up jobs to further develop the game, though at the same time [having only women involved] can be a weakness. Women coaches have fewer opportunities to develop their coaching skills and it’s difficult for them to find good knowledge resources.”
One of those who has seized the opportunities that have come her way, however, is former Iranian international Katayoun “Katiana” Khosrowyar, currently in charge of her country’s U-14 women’s side and an assistant coach at U-16 level. “I started playing at the age of five in the USA and when I came to Iran in 2005 at 17 I was desperate to keep playing, so I signed up first for futsal and then, a few months later, the 11-a-side game. I was soon selected for the Iran team that finished second at the very first West Asian Football Federation Women’s Championship [in 2005], under leading coach Shahrzad Mozafar, and after that the FFIRI has really put a lot of focus on women’s football and on increasing our supporter base,” said the 27-year-old, who has a Masters degree in Chemical Engineering from University of Birmingham, UK.
“I began my coaching education at the age of 23, when I was nominated by the FFIRI to go for my AFC “C” Coaching Certificate, a course held in Sri Lanka,” went on the ex-midfielder. “From there I was nominated by [former FIFA Women’s Football Instructor and AFC Elite Coach Instructor] Belinda Wilson to participate in the AFC-funded Project Future, which aims to develop highly capable future coaches. As part of a group of both men and women from Asia, we then went through a rigorous two-year programme to obtain our “B” license. Once that was completed, my instructors felt I had what it took to go for my “A” license and I achieved that too, becoming one of the youngest coaches in Asia to do so.”
Having hit such heights in coaching development, what does Khosrowyar feel is key to her continued progress? “The FFIRI has done so much to develop women’s coaches and referees and the challenge now is to get more games and tournaments to put our knowledge to the test and keep advancing. Education is vital but diplomas and certificates aren’t everything, we also need practice, practice and more practice!”
And in her own expert view, what does Dutch strategist De Reus feel is required to continue to boost the Iranian game? “Domestic competitions are crucial for players’ development. The top countries keep developing their professional leagues with the professional facilities that come with them, with Iran needing to keep improving the quality of its Super League,” said De Reus, before touching on the subject of a national team currently 58th in FIFA/Coca-Cola Women’s World Ranking, 13th among AFC teams. “It would be helpful if the best national-team players could gain experience abroad, while the women’s national team schedule needs more continuity and more international matches – against increasingly strong teams – in order to improve the senior team’s performances and narrow the gap to countries such as Australia, Korea Republic, Korea DPR and China PR.
“However, though major challenges remain, such as the fact women’s football is not broadcast on TV and the cultural and religious regulations that make hosting international tournaments difficult, I’m confident that, thanks to the understanding and support received from FIFA and the AFC, the hard work the FFIRI puts in, and last but not least the talent and potential of the country’s women and girls, the future could be bright for Iranian women’s football.”
UK-born but currently based in Spain, I’ve been covering men’s and women’s football for UEFA.com for several years, including trips to two Women’s U-19 European Championships