Iranians vent football passions at the cinema

With ban on open air screenings, cinemas are among the only places for Iranian fans to gather.

TEHRAN - With Iran banning open air screenings of its World Cup opening match at the last minute on Friday, Tehran's cinemas turned into the venues for fans to vent their passion.

Supporters thronged the steps of the Azadi cinema in central Tehran ahead of the match, chanting and deafening passers-by with blasts of vuvuzela.

Kids lined up to get their faces painted in the colours of the Iranian flag before following their parents into the multiplex.

With no bars, and mixed signals from police about whether cafes would be allowed to screen the matches, cinemas were among the only places for fans to gather.

Inside the screens, there was a notably even split between men and women.

Iranian authorities were ridiculed on social media ahead of Iran's first Group B match against Morocco, after a huge World Cup billboard was put up in central Tehran featuring supporters from different parts of the country -- but notably failing to include any women.

"A new billboard just went up in Tehran's busy Valiasr Square to welcome the World Cup and most importantly, let #TeamMelli know that they have the full support of the Iranian nation. For those wondering, there are no women in Iran," joked one local journalist on Twitter.

The billboard was quickly replaced with a new design that included women lined up alongside the Iranian team, which is nicknamed Team Melli.

Football is particularly popular among Iranian women, in part because they are banned from attending live matches, lending it an illicit air.

Plans cancelled

Just hours before the opening match started, officials had cancelled plans to show the match in Tehran's biggest stadium, also called Azadi (meaning "freedom").

That would have marked the first time in the Islamic republic's history that men and women were allowed to attend a sporting event together there.

Plans to erect big screens in the city's parks were also shelved at the last minute, with no explanation given.

But the fans in the cinema on Friday were not going to let anything spoil the mood.

"I'm not a football fan but this is my country and we are so excited to watch the football and we are ready to win," said Rahelleh, 32, with her young daughter in her arms and an Iran hat on her head.

"We hoped to go to the stadium but we are very happy to come here with my family. I'm not that optimistic (that we can win) but I'm just happy to be in the World Cup -- that's enough," she added.

One of the few other places to be showing the game was the nearby Football Cafe, where a trendy crowd puffed on shisha pipes and ordered fruit juices from the bar.

"This is Iran, so there are not many places for young people and women to go," said Simin, 30, at a table full of female fans.

"There are no clubs so we come to these cafes. I'm not sure if we will win, but we will definitely have a good time."

No Nike boots

Iran has had a tough build-up to the competition, with Portuguese coach Carlos Quieroz complaining about limited resources and poor facilities for the squad, nicknamed Team Melli.

The players were also the latest victim of US sanctions, with Nike refusing to provide the team with football boots, saying it would breach the US trade embargo on Iran.

But that has only helped to rally support and team morale for an against-the-odds battle in one of the cup's toughest groups, which also includes Spain and Portugal.

In a profile for GQ magazine this week, Quieroz said: "Iran loves football, and people know we have problems and now look at Iran differently, more respectfully because they know the challenges we have."

Iran had an unbeaten run through the qualifiers, but faces one of the toughest groups in the competition, against Morocco, Spain and Portugal.