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© Abedin Taherkenareh/European Pressphoto Agency In an exception to the ban against women attending sports events, Iranian women, most of them family of players, were permitted to watch a soccer match between Iran and Bolivia at the Azadi Stadium in Tehran, in 2018.
Her dream was to watch a soccer match from a stadium in Iran where women are banned from attending most sports events.
She died in pursuit of this dream.
Sahar Khodayari, 29, died in a hospital in Tehran this week from severe burns that covered 90 percent of her body. She had set herself on fire in front of a courthouse on Sept. 2, after being sentenced to six months in prison.
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Her crime was sneaking into Azadi Stadium, Tehran’s main sporting venue, in March to watch her favorite team, Esteghlal, play against a team from the United Arab Emirates.
Ms. Khodayari was arrested and spent three nights in jail. Her mobile phone was seized. She was released on bail and told to report to Revolutionary Court in September.
Blue is the color of the Esteghlal team, and as news spread that one of its female fans had set herself on fire, Ms. Khodayari became known on social media as the “Blue Girl.” The hashtag #BlueGirl sprung up, bringing attention to the plight of female soccer fans.
In death, Ms. Khodayari’s name has become an international rallying cry for Iran to end its discrimination against women and allow them entrance to sports events.
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Many Iranians, including a former captain of the national team, are calling for a boycott of soccer games until the ban on women attending matches is lifted. Several officials expressed shock and outrage at what happened to Ms. Khodayari.
“Some issues can be resolved simply but we turn them into deep social scars for which we have no answer to history,” said Fareed Mousavi, a lawmaker on the parliament’s youth committee. “We need to rectify these unjust discriminations before it’s too late.”
Masoumeh Ebtekar, President Hassan Rouhani’s vice president for women and family affairs — the highest ranking woman in the Iranian government — issued a statement expressing “deep regret and sadness” for Ms. Khodayari’s death. She said her office had appointed a representative to follow the case since news of the burning surfaced, and said the representative had met with the mother and sister of the victim in the hospital.
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Ms. Ebtekar said a written report on the case had been submitted to the judiciary on Saturday, and the topic of allowing women in stadiums was discussed in a cabinet meeting on Sunday.
The news of Ms. Khodayari’s death spread on Monday, but some Persian news media outlets reported that she had died a few days earlier and was secretly buried without informing the family. Iran has a long practice of denying the family members of people deemed a “security threat” their dead bodies and conducting secret burials to avoid publicity.
Iranian activists say Ms. Khodayari’s family has been threatened and pressured not to speak to the news media.
FIFA, international soccer’s governing body, has warned Iran to lift the ban on women attending international soccer matches by Oct. 10, when the country’s national team — among the top in Asia — is to host a World Cup qualifying game.
In some cases, to relieve pressure from FIFA, Iran has selectively allowed limited number of women, mostly relatives of players or government officials, to attend certain soccer games. But women are not allowed to buy tickets for the events.
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“They are basically trying to manipulate FIFA,” said Omid Memarian, deputy director of the Centre for Human Rights in Iran, a New York-based advocacy group. “Even though FIFA has been notified of Iran’s repeated violations and manipulation tactics to allow women in, still Iran has gotten away with this discrimination.”
After Ms. Khodayari’s death, FIFA said in a statement, ”We are aware of that tragedy and deeply regret it.”
In the statement, the group said it repeated its “calls on the Iranian authorities to ensure the freedom and safety of any women engaged in this legitimate fight to end the stadium ban for women in Iran.”
Still, many Iranians and human rights activists on Tuesday blamed FIFA for not taking a stronger stand against the ban. International soccer stars tweeted that FIFA should step up and enforce its regulations banning member countries from discriminating against gender and race.
Magdalena Eriksson, a soccer player for Chelsea F.C. Women, a British soccer team, wrote on Twitter: “FIFA or any other organisation that’s in a position of privilege and power, you need to act to make this stop!”
Handballs, headbutts and shoulder bites – FIFA World Cups have seen their share of shocking moments. With the 2018 version set to start in Russia on June 14, check out some of the more controversial moments from the tournament’s history.
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1954: Battle of Berne
When Hungary met Brazil in a quarter-final in Berne, Switzerland, the match resulted in 42 free kicks, four yellow cards, three red cards, two penalties and an ill temper that ran throughout the game among both sides. The game saw vicious fights between players both on the pitch and in the dressing rooms after the match was over.
Referee Arthur Ellis later said: "Whether politics and religion had something to do with it I don't know, but they behaved like animals. It was a disgrace... It was a horrible match. In today's climate so many players would have been sent off the game would have been abandoned. My only thought was that I was determined to finish it."
The game later became famous as the "Battle of Berne." For the record, Hungary beat Brazil 4-2.
1982: Prince Fahid of Kuwait chalks off French goal
Kuwait’s first (and, to date, only) World Cup appearance was in Spain in 1982. Clearly out of their depth, they were trailing 1-3 in a group game against France and seemed to have conceded a fourth – to midfielder Alain Giresse.
However, the country’s Football Association president, Sheikh Fahad Al-Ahmed Al-Jaber Al-Sabah (pictured) would not have it; he rushed on to the pitch and vehemently contested the goal. The president, and his team, argued they stopped playing because of a mysterious whistle from the stands.
The goal was eventually disallowed – it didn’t matter though, France scored a fourth anyway. Nevertheless, this remains the only time in World Cup history that a spectator successfully challenged the award of a goal. For his troubles, the sheikh was fined and the referee, Miroslav Stupar, was banned.
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1982: Schumacher's unpunished tackle on Battiston
In a semi-final encounter, West German goalkeeper Harald Schumacher (R) committed one of the most reckless challenges in World Cup history – on French striker Patrick Battiston (L), who was bearing down on goal. Schumacher’s challenge missed the ball completely and Battiston received the full force of the tackle.
Amazingly, Schumacher wasn’t penalized, although he was widely criticized. Battiston left the game with two broken teeth, a broken neck vertebra and three cracked ribs. West Germany won the game on penalties, and eventually lost the final to Italy.
1986: Maradona's 'Hand of God'
Arguably one of the most controversial moments in World Cup history (and possibly even in the history of the game), the then-Argentina captain’s infamous quarter-final goal against England settled the match in favor of the South Americans.
Although the move started with a bit of brilliance, Maradona finished the attack with a clear and deliberate punch of the ball, to put it past England goalkeeper Peter Shilton. The incident itself went unnoticed by the match officials and was only noticed on TV replays after the match.
Maradona would go on to lead his country to the title, scoring twice more in the semi-final against Belgium.
1990: Rijkaard spits on Völler
A second-round match between old foes West Germany and the Netherlands turned ugly after Rudi Völler (L) made a hard tackle on Frank Rijkaard. Infuriated, Rijkaard spat on Völler, who complained to the referee. The German was booked for his protests and it looked like his opponent might have gotten away with the foul. However, the fight raged on, forcing the referee to show both players the red card.
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The Germans would go on to win the game 2-1, with second-half goals from Jürgen Klinsmann and Andreas Brehme.
1998: Estonia don't turn up for match against Scotland
One of the more bizarre matches in World Cup history took place during a qualifying game in 1996. The match should have featured Estonia hosting Scotland. However, because of a pre-match row over the poor standard of floodlights at the Kadrioru Stadium in Tallinn, FIFA changed the kick-off time.
This meant Estonia – whose squad was largely comprised of part-time players – would struggle to field a playing side in time for the revised 3 p.m. (local time) start. Unfazed, the Scots took to the field at the scheduled time, started the match facing an empty half and, according to the rules, were awarded the win (and three points) by default.
On appeal, however, the match was re-played three months later in Monaco; it ended 0-0. Scotland would go on to qualify for the 1998 World Cup, finishing winless, fourth and last in Group A.
2002: Rivaldo feigns injury
While preparing to take a corner during a group game against Turkey, Brazilian playmaker Rivaldo resorted to a rank bit of playacting that fooled the referee into showing Hakan Ünsal the red card.
The Turk passed the ball to Rivaldo but the latter acted as if the ball hit his face, when it had only struck his knee. Brazil went on to win the match 2-1; Rivaldo scored from the penalty spot.
After the match, Rivaldo was fined $7,350 (then worth £5,180) for feigning injury. He was, however, allowed to continue playing in the tournament, which Brazil won.
2006: Zidane headbutts Materazzi
Infuriated by Italian defender Marco Materazzi's comments during the final, former France captain Zidane responded by headbutting him in the chest. Zidane was dismissed with a red card in his last international match, having single-handedly dragged his team to the final. Italy eventually won 5-4 on penalties.
Later, in an interview, Materazzi admitted he used "stupid words," but there was "no bitterness" between the two after the incident.
2006: The Battle of Nuremberg
Portugal lost Deco and Costinha to red cards, while Giovanni van Bronckhorst and Khalid Boulahrouz were sent off for the Netherlands in this Round of 16 tie. The rough tackling also saw Cristiano Ronaldo forced off injured.
Former FIFA President Sepp Blatter was quoted as saying: "Russian referee Valentin Ivanov should have given himself a yellow card for his poor performance during the match."
Styled today as the “Battle of Nuremberg,” Portugal won 1-0, courtesy of a Maniche goal.
2009: Henry's handball
During the second leg of a qualifying play-off between France and the Republic of Ireland, former Arsenal great Thierry Henry channeled his inner Maradona – he handballed inside the penalty box, setting up compatriot William Gallas for a goal.
As with Maradona’s incident, the referee didn’t see the foul and awarded the French the goal. Despite later protests from the Football Association of Ireland, his decision stood, and France won the tie 2-1 on aggregate. They qualified for the 2010 World Cup, where, after all that, they had a disastrous World Cup, exiting after the group stage without a single win.
2010: Suárez handball
With the scores level in a quarter-final against Ghana, Uruguayan striker Luis Suárez (R) was standing on the goal-line when he decided, quite literally, to take matters into his own hands. He punched the ball away as it was headed towards a certain goal for the Africans.
Suárez was dismissed with a red card. Sadly though, Ghana missed the resulting penalty and Uruguay won 4-2 on penalties, eventually finishing fourth in the World Cup.
2010: Nigel de Jong's karate kick
The 2010 World Cup final in South Africa was a particularly ill-tempered affair with 14 yellow cards awarded. Netherland's Nigel de Jong’s karate kick on Spain's Xabi Alonso grabbed the headlines. Contesting a 50-50 ball, De Jong jumped in the air with a high boot that went straight into Alonso’s chest. The incident went unnoticed and he played the match for 99 minutes before being substituted.
De Jong's foul didn't help his team; the Dutch lost their third World Cup final with a final score of 1-0.
2014: Suárez bites Chiellini
Suárez has a “hunger” for football – the Barcelona star has a number of biting incidents in his career. None of them, however, were as high-profile as the one during the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
With the scores level in a crucial group game, the Uruguayan bit Italy defender Giorgio Chiellini on the shoulder. Although the Italian was quick to show the referee the bite marks, Suárez remained on the pitch and, only minutes, later, central defender Diego Godin gave the South Americans a 1-0 win.
Suárez did receive a post-match punishment though – FIFA slapped him with a nine-match ban, meaning his World Cup was over, and a four-month football ban. Uruguay went on to lose the quarter-final to Colombia.
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Military officials stopped short of explicitly accusing Tehran of conducting the strikes.