(Reuters) - Iranian women watched the country’s national soccer team for the first time in 40 years on Thursday, celebrating their long-awaited access to the national stadium but also paying tribute to the ‘Blue Girl’ fan who died last month.
Iran, one of the traditional powerhouses of Asian football with a passionate fan-base, won their World Cup qualifying match against Cambodia 14-0 but the one-sided game will be remembered much more for the scenes in the stands.
Waving flags, blowing vuvuzela plastic horns and displaying the team colours of red, green and white, over 3,000 women watched from a special women-only section in the Azadi Stadium.
Women have been banned from watching men’s games in Iran since shortly after the 1979 Islamic revolution with only a few exceptions made for small groups on rare occasions.
But under pressure from world soccer’s governing body FIFA and women’s rights campaigners, Iranian authorities earmarked tickets for women to watch Thursday’s game.
FIFA had sent a delegation to Tehran to ensure that women were allowed to attend the game following the death last month of Sahar Khodayari, who set herself on fire to protest against her arrest for trying to get into a match.
Dubbed “Blue Girl” online for her favorite team Esteghlal’s colors, Khodayari had feared being jailed for six months by the Islamic Revolutionary Court for trying to enter a stadium dressed as a man.
Video footage of the crowd at Thursday’s match, posted on twitter, showed some supporters chanting “Blue Girl, Blue Girl”. Other video showed supporters chanting “FIFA, Thank You”.
While Iran’s dominant performance ensured little drama on the field, there was no shortage of emotion in the crowd.
“We have an incredible feeling as the first Iranian women entering the stadium,” said one fan, interviewed by local television.
“Inshallah from now on all of our friends will also be able to come. Because we had restrictions this is very appealing to us otherwise it’s not something special,” she said.
Another video interview, distributed on social media, showed a woman fan inside the stadium, on the brink of tears with an Iranian flag over her shoulders and painted on her face.
“It was really a very big wish. Really, thank you for letting us come. I’m shaking. Thank you,” she said.
Selling tickets for a women’s only section has been criticized by some campaigners who would prefer women to be able to attend matches with their male family members.
Campaigners also want to see women given access to all games, not just World Cup qualifiers which come under the direct responsibility of FIFA. Iranian women are not currently able to attend men’s games in their domestic club league.
The game was sparsely attended but an extra area, next to the designated women’s section, was opened for what appeared to be women who did not have tickets for the arranged area.
At the end of the game, the Iranian players ran over to the women’s section to show their appreciation for their support.
Government spokesman Ali Rabiei said he viewed the presence of women at the stadium as a positive step, according to the official IRNA news agency.
“The government has a positive view of the presence of women in stadiums,” Rabiei said.
“The infrastructure of Azadi stadium is ready for the presence of women. But the cultural and mental infrastructure must be ready,” he added
While campaigners have welcomed women being granted access for Thursday’s game, it is unclear if such scenes will become the norm in Iran.
FIFA President Gianni Infantino has urged Iranian authorities to open up stadiums to women for all games, not just World Cup qualifiers.
The sport’s global governing body sent officials to Tehran to monitor access for women at the match and said it will continue to press for their inclusion.
Infantino issued a statement after Thursday’s game saying the occasion had been a “very positive step forward”.
“There can be no stopping or turning back now,” he said. “The passion, joy and enthusiasm (the fans) showed today was remarkable to see and encourages us even more to continue the path we have started. History teaches us that progress comes in stages and this is just the beginning of a journey,” he added.
“Consequently, FIFA now looks more than ever towards a future when ALL girls and women wishing to attend football matches in IR Iran will be free to do so, and in a safe environment.”
The FIFA president paid tribute to “all of the Iranian girls and women who courageously stood and are standing up for their rights. FIFA fully supports them and will stand by them.”
Reporting by Simon Evans; Additional reporting by Babak Dehghanpisheh in Geneva; Editing by Catherine Evans, Ken Ferris and Toby Davis