Film Review: ‘Football Under Cover’

A distinct mixture of cross-cultural communication, intra-gender relations, and love of all things soccer, Football Under Cover (2008) documents the story of one German recreational female soccer team’s quest to play a historical game of soccer against the “international” female soccer team of Iran. Due to Iran’s strict cultural and religious laws, Tehran’s team had never played a game against another team.

The barriers for women’s sports are high in Iran. While practicing and playing, the members of Iran’s female league are required to obey all necessary religious traditions. For example, they must have their headscarves on at all times and men are not allowed into the stadium to watch the women play. Despite these obstacles, the film demonstrates the members of Tehran’s female team are fervent sports fanatics, gathering inner strength from their passion and love of the game.

Marlene, a leading member of the Berlin club team, learns about the plight of the Iranian women’s team after visiting with Iranian colleague and friend of hers. Deeply moved, she resolves to arrange a match between her club and the Iranians. After making contact with the Iranian team, the German team began an unpredicted long and winding road towards this historical match.

Beyond the cultural and legal challenges, there was great difficulty in attaining a sponsor of the game. It wasn’t until the International Football Federation (FIFA) finally decided to sponsor the game that the match was confirmed. The two teams played in Tehran, Iran, where many Iranian women come to see the game and proudly root for their home team. The game ends with a tie, emphasizing the friendly nature of the match.

Directed by David Assman and Ayat Najafi, Football Under Cover depicts Iran’s cultural oppression of women in society. The film focuses on the prominent differences between Europeans and Middle Easterners that bleed through even a seemingly universal sport like soccer. The film highlights substantial risks that Iranian female soccer players undertake. Some members of the Iranian team dress up as men to practice in public. For these focused, sport-loving women, it’s clear their love of sport and the freedom that comes from playing soccer is greater than the possible consequences of “indecent moral behavior.”

Assman and Najafi illustrate the differences between the two teams well but within the German soccer team, there were a few Muslim team members that were curious but had reservations about Iran’s religious norms. Unfortunately, the film does not spend time documenting this important intra-religious phenomenon. With greater attention to this dynamic, the audience could have gained a bit more contextual information about the many facets of Islam.

The film does a wonderful job of highlighting the cultural sensitivity of the German players. The German team was respectful of Iranian culture, as they wore the appropriate clothing necessary to cover their heads and extremities. More importantly, they didn’t expect the Iranians to make exceptions to their unfamiliarity with Iranian customs for women. Instead of Western cultural assimilation, this film illustrated the far too rare occurrence of Western culture acquiescing to the less-dominant Iranian culture.

Football Under Cover serves as a lighthearted look into the difficulties Iranian women face on a day-to-day basis, from gender inequality to oppressive moral codes. By using the universality of soccer as a cross-cultural tool for international relations, the female German soccer team helps the Iranian team step outside their strict cultural laws — even just for one soccer match — and experience their sports lives in a different setting.

Chiara Becker is a second-year undergraduate student at American University. She recently interned with Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies.