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Thursday, June 9, 2011

Jordanian prince mediates Iranian-FIFA dispute in rare gesture towards Iran


In a rare gesture to Iran, Jordanian Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein said he would seek to mediate a resolution of the dispute between world soccer body FIFA and Iran over women’s professional football dress.

"This is an important issue that I will raise with the Asian Football Confederation and with the International Federation of Association Football. We will work together to find a solution that respects the rules of the game and the culture at the same time," Prince Ali, a half-brother of Jordanian King Abdullah, FIFA vice president and head of the Jordanian and West Asian soccer federations, said.

Prince Ali’s gesture comes at a time that relations between Jordan and its Gulf allies are strained over allegations that Iran is instigating mass anti-government protests across the Middle East and North Africa. The Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) last month invited Jordan to join the club of Arab monarchs. Saudi-Iranian tensions spilt last month on to the soccer pitch with Iranian fans denouncing Saudi Arabia during an Asian cup match in Tehran.

"Football is about fair play and respect and I am confident that we can resolve this issue," Prince Ali, who took office as FIFA vice president on Wednesday, said.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad vowed on Tuesday to “seriously confront” FIFA’s ban on the Islamic republic’s women's soccer team wearing religious garb during professional matches.

Iran’s Football Federation (FFI) chief Afi Kafashian appealed meanwhile to FIFA president Sepp Blatter to reverse a decision to cancel a match in Jordan because of the team’s donning of the hijab and allow for a replay of the 2012 Olympics qualifying match that was cancelled by a Bahrain FIFA referee.

The cancellation lead to Jordan being declared the victor and Iran losing its opportunity to qualify for next year’s Olympics in London.

“Our girls have worked hard for the qualifying matches and should not be deprived in this manner,” the state-run Fars news agency quoted Mr. Kafashian as saying.

Earlier, FIFA rejected an Iranian protest and said Iran had been advised in advance that the team would not be allowed to wear the Islamic dress or hijab for safety reasons.
FIFA said the decision to cancel the game was in line with its laws and regulation.

FIFA bans religious symbols on the soccer pitch but agreed with Iran several years ago that the Iranian women’s team would be allowed to wear a head dress that does not cover the neck and ears. The Iranian reversal to more Islamic dress violated that agreement, according to FIFA.

Iran obliges women to observe Islamic dress code that covers their body, head to toe. The Iranian team appeared for last Friday’s match in full tracksuits, headscarves and neck warmers.

Iranian women’s soccer director Farideh Shojaei denied FIFA’s assertion. “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.... This [uniform] is neither religious, nor political, nor will it lead to harm a player…. and Mr Sepp Blatter accepted this," Ms. Shojaei told Reuters TV

Prince Ali is viewed as an ally of Mr. Blatter, who sided with the FIFA president against Asian Football Confederation chief Mohammed Bin Mammam, a Qatari national who last month withdrew his challenge to Mr. Blatter in FIFA’s presidential elections because of charges of corruption levelled against him. Mr. Blatter was last week elected unopposed for a fourth term.

Prince Ali campaigned for becoming FIFA vice president on a platform of change that included ensuring women’s rights in soccer.

"I am a firm supporter of women's football and I am keen on addressing all related issues to ensure that all girls and women can play this beautiful game across the continent," Prince Ali said.

The prince’s gesture is all the more remarkable given the fact that Mr. Ahmadinejad, a soccer player and enthusiast, has taken a close interest in soccer in a bid to polish his tarnished image and curry popular favor. A 2009 US diplomatic cable disclosed by WikiLeaks concluded that the president’s efforts had only limited success.

The Iranian president went as far as in 2006 lifting the ban on women watching soccer matches in Iranian stadia, but in a rare public disagreement was overruled by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

Iranian ambassador to Jordan Mustafa Muslah Zada charged this week that the disqualification of the Iranian women’s team “was politically motivated."

Mr Zada warned that “if FIFA continues to impose a certain dress on women, it will lose a lot of players from Arab and Muslim countries. It is a political issue. Politics should not be mixed with sports. What happened was a violation of human rights as well as international and Olympic charters."

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