For the first time in several hundred years, women took to the polo field for the inaugural Tehran International Ladies Tournament held in Iran late last month.
Hosted by Mr Hamzeh Ilkhanizadeh and family, together with Mr Houman Bagheri, Secretary of the Polo Federation of Iran, the tournament was played at Kanoon Chogan Polo Club with teams from England and Australia taking on the host team, Iran. A 45 minute drive from centre of Tehran, the club is located in a truly spectacular setting with 3 superb grass grounds, 1 arena, top class facilities and horses. The club has 26 playing members, 5 of whom are female.
The matches were played over 3 days, with the first between England and Iran, the second between Australia and Iran and the final set for the two winning teams from the first two matches.
It was indeed an opportunity for the teams to visit the ‘home’ of polo, with Iran, formerly Persia, and the history of polo so closely linked. Iranians take great pride in the fact that they created such a beautiful game, one that is now played across the globe and by many different people. It was in ancient Persia that the first recorded game of polo took place in 600 BC, and throughout history the game remained popular among generals, warriors, Princes and Kings as a means of cavalry training for warfare. During their time in Iran, the two visiting teams inspected the oldest known polo field at Naqshe Jahan Square in Isfahan. Dating from the 16th Century AD, the field still exists today, and although no longer in use as a polo field, its dimensions have formed the basis on which the standard for polo fields across the world has been set. The original marble goal posts are still visible, and a fitting monument to the origins of a sport steeped in centuries of tradition.
The history of women playing polo in Iran dates back to at least the 4th century AD, with many accounts of polo matches played between princesses in particular. In fact, the poet Nizami described polo matches between the Iranian Shah, Khosrow Parvis, and his court against the Armenian princess, Shireen, and her court. Many indications point to the fact that polo was perhaps even more popular amongst the ladies than it was amongst the men during this era. More recently The Iranian Polo Federation was created 3 years ago with the aim of promoting polo and encouraging female players. The Iranian Polo Federation has started to create links to the International Women’s Polo Association and its Chairman, Pippa Grace, making tournaments like this possible.
Due to the intense heat (at times up to 45 degrees) all the games were played in the evening just before sunset and on the beautiful main ground adjacent to the tree-lined avenue which backs onto the private residence of the Ilkhanizadeh’s. The field played incredibly well for all games with its fantastically spongy, yet hugely supportive surface on which the horses felt very comfortable. Spectators were segregated into 3 sections, VIP’s, women and men. All were seated on the most beautiful Persian carpets, laid out over the steps facing the field. The sight of the women players on the field was made all the more extraordinary due to their adherence to the Islamic traditional dress codes, which meant that not only were they wearing the ‘Hijab’, covering all hair and neck but also wearing specially designed coats made of cotton that covered down to the knee and well over the wrists as well as up to the neck. Despite wearing much more clothing than they were used to, the visiting teams felt that this did not in fact prove as much of a hindrance as they had feared, and once play commenced, it was forgotten about! The first game, which was played on July 26, saw Iran meeting the England team. Before each game, as the teams lined up, a verse of the Koran was sung beautifully across the field and to the spectators, an incredibly moving and evocative situation for all. Starting with a goal difference of 2 to Iran, the game opened excitingly with thrilling goals from Heloise Lorentzen, Caroline Giles and Anna Williamson, and with both teams gauging each others aptitude. Despite the number of goals scored by the England team before the first half, the spectators were impressed by the Iranian team’s horsemanship and ball skills. In the second half of the game of particular note was Ghazaleh Amir Ebrahimi’s many goals scored in quick succession, but it wasn’t enough against a more experienced England team who won by 12 goals to 6.
The next day saw the match between Iran and Australia. This time Iran started with a 1 ½ goal difference. The game began well for the favoured Australia team with goals by Justine Henwood, Elizabeth Adams Williams and the Captain Jacqueline Hooper. There was less teamwork demonstrated by the Iran team in this game but the spectators were treated to a much closer and riveting match. At one point the goal difference between the two teams was a mere 1 ½ goals. The second half saw spectacular goals by Kathie Jalaie for Iran as well as Captain Ghazaleh Amir Ebrahimi but once again this was not quite enough for the more aggressive Australian team who won by 7 goals to 4.5. Despite losing both games, the Iranian team saw this tournament as a great learning experience, and as a means for them to improve their game.
The final between Australia and England was a lavish affair with the spectators being served delicious refreshments throughout. The extensive media coverage from the two previous matches attracted an elite range of invited spectators including: VIPs: Mr. Geoffrey Adams, British Ambassador to Iran, Mr. Greg Moriarty, Australian Ambassador to Iran, Mr. Thomas Burn, Second Secretary of British Embassy, Mr. Matthew Hawkins, New Zealand Deputy Head of Mission, and Spanish Ambassador to Tehran. Australia started with a half goal difference. From the onset Australia attacked strongly making many great hindrances to the England team in coming forward to goal. In the second chukka an unfortunate accident leading to a fall resulted in the Australian captain Jacqueline Hooper breaking a finger after being rolled onto by a horse. The game was held up for some time but brave Jacqueline decided to play on, ever more determined. Up to half time the scores were almost even with England just in the lead by half a goal. Despite the injury Jacqueline continued to lead her team gallantly but England were fighting on, and with exciting play from both teams there was much to delight the spectators. Goals by Louise Sandberg and Caroline Giles saw the England nudge forward in what was the closest match of the tournament. Strong defensive plays by the Australians prevented England from increasing their margin by too much. As the final bell rang, the score was 6 goals to England and 4.5 to Australia.
A sumptuous buffet was laid on by the hosts in the evening to celebrate the end of this successful tournament, which will hopefully be the first in a line of many International Women’s tournaments in Iran. Everyone was in agreement that it was wonderful to come together in the name of sport in such a beautiful and welcoming country and hoped to come back one day.
The Ilkhanizadeh’s provided extraordinary hospitality for the visiting teams. This included exquisitely presented local cuisine comprising fresh fruit and salads, as well as lightly spiced chicken, lamb and fish and naan, using local delicacies such as pomegranates, saffron and limes - evocative of the Persia of old. The teams were accommodated in immaculately presented air-conditioned suites which afforded great respite from the heat. Mr. Ilkhanizadeh’s wife Pari was a gracious hostess and became the ladies’ guru by assisting the visiting players with information regarding the correct dress code and appropriate behaviour for ladies in Iran.
1. Nadia von Maltzahn -2
2. Katayoon Jalaie -1
3. Ghazaleh amir Ebrahimi 0
4. Haleh Amir Ebrahimi -2
Shiva Ilkhanizadeh -2
Zahra Sadrieh -2
Louise Sandberg -1
Anna Williamson -1
Caroline Giles (Cap) 0
Heloise Lorentzen 0
1. Justine Henwood (-1),
2. Elizabeth Adams (0),
3.Jacqueline Hooper (Cap) 0
4, Gillian McCall (-2).
Below, the victorious British team
(Left to right): Anna Williamson, Caroline Giles, (Captain), Louise Sandberg, Heloise Lorentzen
Photo by Milad Payami