Iranian fans at the national team’s first World Cup game unfurled banners protesting against Iran’s ban on women attending matches at home.
One read “#NoBan4Women” and “Support Iranian Women to Attend Stadiums”. It was held aloft during the match against Morocco in the Russian city of St Petersburg on Friday. After it was initially unfurled, during the first half of the game, there was a brief commotion as it was put away.
Three stewards moved across to where the banner was, on the bottom row near one of the goals. It then remained unfurled for the remainder of the first half. Then, in the second half, the banner moved up the field near the other goal.
Since the 1979 Islamic revolution, Iranian women have been banned from attending soccer matches and other male-only sporting events. A partial exception to the ban on women was made in June 2015 when a small number were allowed to watch volleyball in Tehran.
It followed public outcry a year earlier, after British-Iranian student Ghoncheh Ghavami was detained while trying to attend a men’s volleyball match at Azadi. She spent more than 100 days in prison.
Before Friday’s match, fans from Iran and Morocco mingled on the streets wearing flags, blowing whistles and chanting songs without any animosity. Enthusiastic Iranian women were among them.
That contrasted with the one of the main squares in Tehran, where a billboard portrays fans celebrating and holding aloft the World Cup, accompanied by the slogan “One nation, one heartbeat”. There were no women on it.
Some fans were keen to express themselves as they arrived at the imposing St Petersburg Stadium.
“It’s my first time as an Iranian female to be in a stadium. I’m so excited,” a young Iranian woman, who gave her name as Nazanin, said.
One couple came with a banner reading “4127km (2,564 miles) to be at the stadium as a family” in protest against the ban. “We should come here, 4,127 kilometers to be at the stadium as a family. Why?
This is stupid,” said the man, who gave his name as Amin. His wife said she was extremely happy to be finally going to the stadium. They were rewarded with Iran snatching a dramatic 1 – 0 victory over Morocco.
Players have also previously lent their support to the cause.
Iran captain Masoud Shojaei has been a vocal advocate of ending the ban, as has former Bayern Munich midfielder Ali Karimi.
Iranian president Hassan Rouhani met Fifa president Gianni Infantino in Tehran on March 1. On the same day, 35 women were detained for trying to attend the Tehran derby between Esteghlal and Persepolis, which Mr Infantino attended.
Women disguising themselves as men have tried to enter soccer stadiums in Iran before, some of them successfully doing so and posting photos of themselves in beards and wigs on social media.
A group known on Twitter as OpenStadiums has been pushing for access, describing itself as “a movement of Iranian women seeking to end discrimination (and) let women attend stadiums”.