TEHRAN - Hundreds of Iranian women attended a crunch football match in Tehran, in a rare step seen Sunday as a "victory" by local newspapers and hailed by FIFA as an "historic and festive day" for the sport.
About a thousand women were allowed into Azadi Stadium late Saturday to watch Iranian giant Persepolis FC battle it out in the Asian Champions League with Japan's Kashima Antlers, a reporter said.
The Japanese side triumphed 2-0 on aggregate, after a goalless draw in Tehran, but for the reformist Etemad newspaper the clear winners were Iranian women.
"Women were the winners of Azadi ("Freedom" in Farsi) match," it said in a bold headline on its front page.
A picture on the front page of another reformist daily, Sazandegi, showed women cheering at the stadium with a headline reading: "Iranian women's victory in Asian finals."
Haft-e Sobh newspaper, which has no marked political affiliation, carried a banner headline on its front page that said: "A thousand real women."
The Asian Football Confederation and FIFA presidents praised the attendance of women at the match, in a joint statement.
"I thank the authorities in Iran for making it possible for a diverse and socially representative crowd to witness an extraordinary occasion," said AFC president Salman al-Khalifa.
"Tonight, was historic in so many ways," he said.
Gianni Infantino, head of world football's governing body FIFA who attended the match, said he was "delighted to personally" see Iranian female football fans inside the 100,000-capacity stadium.
"Today is a historic and festive day for football, a real breakthrough," Infantino said.
- 'Handpicked' female fans -
Women were barred from attending matches after the 1979 Islamic revolution, with clerics arguing they must be protected from the masculine atmosphere and sight of semi-clad men.
They have also worried about the crush of men and women when leaving stadiums.
The ban on women in stadiums has been frequently criticised from across the political spectrum.
On Sunday, state-run IRNA reported that authorities had allowed a select group of 850 women fans to attend the Persepolis-Kashima Antlers match.
Sazandegi newspaper said most were "handpicked" and included female relatives of the local side as well as women football and futsal players.
Reformist newspaper Shargh reported that about 500 female fans were kept outside the stadium gates.
One reporter said the women who entered were seated in a separate stand inside the stadium and allowed inside two hours before the game started to avoid a crush.
After the revolution almost 40 years ago, women were allowed to attend a football match in Iran for the first time in November 2001 when around 20 Irish women were among the crowd for an Iran-Ireland World Cup qualifier
Iranian women had to wait four more years, until June 8, 2005 when a few dozens were allowed to watch an Iran-Bahrain match, also a World Cup qualifier.
After that match, women were rarely allowed to watch men's football in stadiums and in very limited numbers.
On October 16, however, for the first time, as many as 100 Iranian women entered Azadi stadium for a friendly between Iran and Bolivia.
The following day, Iran's prosecutor general warned there would be no repeat of women watching football inside stadiums, saying it would "lead to sin".
But Iran's first vice president, Eshaq Jahangiri, urged sports authorities "not to allow politics to affect football", quoted by IRNA.