By Maryam Qarehgozlou
Azam Sanaei, the 34-year-old captain of the Iranian women’s ice hockey team, has just returned from Thailand where her team ended up as the runner-up in the 2023 IIHF Ice Hockey Women's Asia and Oceania Championship.
After impressive performances against formidable opponents throughout the tournament, the Iranian team went down fighting in the summit clash against reigning champion and hosts Thailand 3-1.
On the road to finals, Sanei’s girls defeated India 17-1, Kuwait 20-0, Kyrgyzstan 26-0, United Arab Emirates 14-0 and Singapore 3-0, conceding only one goal in five exciting games.
It was the IIHF debut for Team Melli, and they managed to create history in their first foray.
Speaking to the Press TV website, the proud skipper said the impressive result shows the women’s ice hockey team “holds enormous potential”.
“Undoubtedly, the Iranian women’s ice hockey team holds great potential, and if we keep on doing a good job, we will definitely get a gold medal in the next tournament,” she said, oozing confidence.
The 2023 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s Asia and Oceania Championship was held in Bangkok, Thailand, from April 30 to May 7, organized by the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF).
According to Sanaei, all seven teams that took part in the tournament were much stronger and more experienced than Iran. The Iranian side went into the competition with only three years of training.
“Our team trained day and night because we knew other teams were more experienced,” the captain told the Press TV website. “We only trained for three years and had to make up for the gap.”
Sanaei has accompanied the female inline hockey team since it was first formed in 2012.
In the last more than a decade, the team participated in only three Asian championships and came third every time, Sanaei said, which prompted her girls to work harder this time.
In 2018, after Asian Roller Sports Championship in South Korea, Iran’s inline hockey team decided to replicate the success in ice hockey.
The first standard-sized ice hockey rink measuring around 1,800 meters was built only three years ago in Tehran’s northwestern outskirts.
“It was a dream come true for inline hockey players who wanted to play on the ice,” she said.
Since then, the captain said, young players began training hard to secure a spot in the first Iranian women’s national ice hockey squad.
As the ice hockey team’s training coincided with the coronavirus pandemic, international tournaments were postponed indefinitely. The tournament in Thailand presented the first opportunity for Sanaei and her team to prove their mettle at the international level.
“In the final match, our players played beyond their abilities. Our rival was the host country and a title holder, their professional experience led to our defeat,” she said.
“It was nonetheless a close fight, until the end of the second half we were tied 1-1. However, in the third and last period, we were left behind and settled for the second place.”
Fatemeh Esmaili, a 25-year-old striker of the Iranian women’s national ice hockey team, said she and her teammates “did a great job” to make it to the final, even though they had bigger expectations.
“We cried hard after finishing in second place, but we still pulled off an amazing feat,” the leading goal-scorer of the tournament told the Press TV website.
“When we lost to Thailand, we thought we blew it all, but in all fairness, it was the first time we participated in an official IIHF tournament, and we defeated teams with more professional experience,” she hastened to add.
Their impressive performance didn’t go unnoticed in Iran and across the world. Social media has been flooded with messages of congratulations for the “winner” team since the final.
Iranian government spokesman Bahadori Jahromi, foreign ministry spokesman Nasser Kan’ani and sports minister Hamid Sajjadi in separate messages lauded their incredible achievement.
On Tuesday, it was announced that all expenses incurred by the members of the team would be paid by the sports ministry, acknowledging their contribution to women’s sports in the country and bringing laurels to the country on the international stage.
Due to some changes at Iran’s Ski Federation and budget-related issues, the female ice hockey squad had to pay for the visa fee and other expenses, which according to the sports minister will now be covered and the players will be also getting a win bonus for their epic feat.
“While Skating Federation was previously responsible for ice hockey, the discipline was merged with the Ski Federation six months ago and due to the changes, no budget was allocated to ice hockey in last year’s budget plan, so the private sector sponsored the team,” Kaveh Sadeqi, Ice Hockey Society chief said.
“But while we were in Bangkok, the (sports) minister announced they will pay for the expenses.”
Iranian women’s national ice hockey squad, however, is not alone in making history and bringing laurels to the country. Other female national teams, including the women’s futsal team, are also on song.
In January, the Iranian women’s team was crowned champions of the 2023 CAFA Women’s Futsal Championship.
More recently, in April, young Iranian girls confirmed their spot in the AFC U17 Women’s Asian Cup Indonesia 2024.
Masoud Hossein, a Tehran-based veteran sports journalist, told the Press TV website that Iranian women’s futsal and football teams have raised the bar in the past years.
“In past two editions, women’s national futsal team defeated Japan, a formidable side, which shows they possess great potential for further progress.”
He added that in addition to team sports, women have done brilliant job in individual sports as well, such as shooting, karate, weightlifting, track and field, and Taekwondo.
Zahra Nemati is one of the most successful Iranian Paralympic and Olympic archers who has won several medals for the country in international competitions.
At the 2012 London Paralympic Games, Nemati won an individual gold and a team bronze.
Following her performance at the 2015 Asian Archery Championships in Bangkok, Thailand she secured Iran a qualification slot for the Rio 2016 Paralympics as well as the Olympics.
At the 2016 Rio Paralympic Games, she made history by taking home her second gold.
In 2019, Poupak Basami became the first Iranian woman to compete in International Weightlifting Federation World Championships.
She finished sixth in the D session after managing a total of 158kg – 72 kg in the snatch and 86kg in the clean and jerk – breaking her own national record.
Elham Hosseini also made history in the 2022 Asian Weightlifting Championships by winning a gold medal in the women’s 81kg weight class.
In the 2023 Asian Weightlifting Championships, five female Iranian weightlifters are expected to show up for the second qualifying event for the 2024 Paris Olympic Games.
“Iranian sportswomen are highly motivated, and they can be great representatives and ambassadors for their country,” Sanaei said. “All they need is the support and encouragement they deserve.”