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Saturday, June 6, 1998 Published at 01:55 GMT 02:55 UK

World: Middle East

Football fever in Iran

Iranian fans will be making themselves heard at France 98

It is hardly surprising that the Iranians are getting restless.

The BBC's Jim Muir reports from Tehran on Iran's passion for football
On June 14 Iran will play their first World Cup match in 20 years against a background of growing pressure for political and social change.

Iran were knocked out after the first round in 1978 and since then, the country has faced international isolation as a result of the Islamic revolution.

Their qualification for France 98 has been impressive, if only for the scorelines.

[ image: Bagheri: seven qualifying goals]
Bagheri: seven qualifying goals
The 17-0 win over the Maldives, a game in which Karim Bagheri scored seven of his 17 qualifying goals, was the biggest in World Cup history.

Iranians, male and female, are fanatical in their support for the national team.

After losing to Japan in a play-off, they went on to beat Terry Venables' Australia and earn the right to take on the world's greatest footballing nations.

But preparations for the finals have been fraught with internal wrangling and just a few weeks before their first match Croatian coach Tomislav Ivic was sacked and replaced by Jalal Talebi.

Fanatical supporters

The nation has always been passionate about football and now the fans have even more reason to be enthusiastic. They are not bothered that Iran are complete outsiders at 500-1. The players are their idols.

[ image: Women have to watch from outside the ground]
Women have to watch from outside the ground
Many supporters are women who, despite being banned from the country's stadiums by law, are starting to make in-roads into the male preserve in a sign of a changing social climate.

Sports reporter Mahin Gordji has argued her way into matches and said: "They don't allow any women in Iran to enter the stadium. It is terrible."

[ image: Gordji: a woman in a man's world]
Gordji: a woman in a man's world
The only woman among 29,000 men at Iran's friendly against Kuwait, Gordji added: "I'm so excited because it is my first experience. At first I was so afraid, but now I am delighted."

She is one of many football fans, male and female, who cannot wait for the World Cup to start.

Iran are unlikely to survive past the first round again, faced with group matches against Yugoslavia, the USA and Germany. But their fanatical support will be on display for however long they stay in France.

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