For many of the thousands of joyful women packed into Tehran’s largest football stadium, their first ever chance to watch a game at a sports arena was a victory for freedom despite Iran’s agonising World Cup elimination.
Cheering and with their cheeks painted with the national colours, women showed they were just as caught up in the World Cup fever sweeping the country as they seized the opportunity to attend a live screening at the 100,000 capacity Azadi (Freedom) Stadium, which, like other sports arenas, has been off-limits to them since the the Islamic revolution of 1979.
While the exuberance turned to tears when Iran missed the chance to snatch a last gasp winner against Portugal, ending their tournament dreams, some in the mixed gender stands said they would still treasure the landmark night watching an open-air screening of the national team.
“It felt weird to buy my ticket online, it’s so exciting to come to the stadium,” said Arezou, a psychologist in her thirties.
“When I felt the heat of the crowd in the stadium, I told myself I really wanted to remember this moment as one of the best of my life.”
The decision to throw open the gates of the iconic stadium came after Iran’s opening victory over Morocco, when tens of thousands took to the streets of the capital in rare and wild celebration, many of them women.
Many Iranian clerics oppose women attending football matches, saying they must be protected from the masculine atmosphere, though the ruling is frequently criticised from across the political spectrum.
“It’s the first time I have come to the stadium. I really wanted to be here and I am so happy! Even if we don’t win, it will still be a victory and we are proud of our players,” said Raana, a flight attendant.
A good natured family atmosphere prevailed among the young crowd in the stands, who watched the crunch match in Russia on a screen placed below twin portraits of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the founder of the Islamic republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
The match was one of nail-biting drama and controversy after Portugal captain Cristiano Ronaldo caught Iran defender Morteza Pouraliganji with an elbow to the face.
In an electrifying game that went down to the wire, Portugal defender Cedric was penalized in stoppage time for a handball, and Karim Ansarifard converted from the spot to give Iran a lifeline.
Mehdi Taremi nearly snatched a dramatic winner after a deflected shot rolled into his path, but he fired into the side netting as Iran were eliminated, ending their hopes of reaching the knockout phase for the first time.
The vacillation by Iranian authorities over whether mixed spectators would be allowed to attend open-air screenings of the country’s World Cup bid shows their deep sensitivity over women’s rights.
Iran’s opening game had initially been due to be shown live in stadiums and parks but authorities cancelled all open-air screenings just hours before kick-off forcing fans to watch in cinemas.
After the public celebrations of that victory, Tehran provincial council buckled and again said stadiums would screen the games.
“I really hope this is the start of a culture in which women can go see games in stadiums. From now on, it’s possible,” said Arezou.
At half-time, from a podium on the Tehran pitch, well-known actress Behnoosh Bakhtiari thanked President Hassan Rouhani for the evening and expressed hope that similar opportunities will follow.
A moderate conservative, who was re-elected in May 2017, Rouhani has said repeatedly he wants to see women at sports stadiums, but the idea has met fierce opposition from hardliners.
After the game, fans both female and male celebrated in the streets into the early hours, undaunted by Iran’s elimination.