President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's claim earlier this year that the Holocaust was a myth and his declaration that Israel should be "wiped off the map" provoked widespread condemnation in the host nation. Some German MPs even petitioned FIFA to have Team Melli excluded from the competition.

The response from the federation and its president, Sepp Blatter, was that football and politics are mutually exclusive.

No-one of course believes this – especially in Iran.

"Politics relates to everything in Iran," says Tehran-based journalist Armin Arefi. "Peoples' social lives, football… everything."

Some German MPs are now urging the chancellor Angela Merkel and the EU to slap a travel ban on senior Iranian officials to prevent Ahmadinejad from visiting Germany, a country where Holocaust denial is a criminal offence, punishable by up to five years in prison.

Tricky trip

The president has yet to reveal his travel plans but has unsurprisingly accused a "Zionist conspiracy" of plotting against him.

The president has yet to confirm
if he will be in Germany 

But if he is unable to get into a stadium to watch Team Melli then at least he will be able to empathise with vast numbers of his own population.
 
While a large expatriate Iranian community will ensure the team is well supported, few are likely to make the trip from Iran itself. Of those that can afford the expense and successfully secure a visa for the trip, even fewer are likely to be women.

Team Melli finalised their preparations with a 5-2 win over Bosnia last week in Tehran’s totemic 100,000 capacity Azadi Stadium.

But despite the stadium being far from full, around 30 women were denied entry and then prevented from watching the game in front of the Azadi complex on a television they had brought with them.

IRAN FACTFILE
Nickname: Team Melli
Previous World Cup
appearances:
2

Star player: Ali Karimi

It was a familiar outcome given that women have been banned from entering public sporting arenas in Iran since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

Hopes were raised of a change of attitude when Ahmadinejad unexpectedly announced he would end the ban saying it would "promote chastity".

Populist gesture

The joy was short-lived as the country’s fiercely conservative religious leaders vetoed the decision decrying it as "un-Islamic".

Armin Arefi, who was with the women before the Bosnia game, says the stadium issue is now another area of socio-political struggle in Iran and that Ahmadinejad’s gesture was purely a populist one after the ban became an issue during last year’s presidential election.

Ahmadinejad has generally shown little appetite for the social reforms that began to emerge under his predecessor Mohammed Khatami.

Female fans cheer Iran on in
Croatia, but not yet at home

"He (Ahmadinejad) just wanted to become popular with the middle classes as he had done with the working class," Arefi says.

On the other side, the majority of the women at the Bosnia game were women’s rights activists such as the prominent lawyer Shadi Sadr and the writer and blogger, Parastoo Dokouhaki.

Around 40 police officers, many of whom were women were awaiting their arrival at the Azadi stadium.

The women’s’ banners proclaiming "our game too" and their cameras were confiscated, as they had been - although more violently - in February ahead of a game with Costa Rica.

"The word Azadi means freedom," Dokouhaki told Aljazeera, "yet they are taking our freedom from us."

Team support

She says the women’s rights movement is using the high profile of football to further their cause, but that they have widespread support, including among Iranian men.

Yet she says male sympathisers find it difficult to protest themselves. At the Bosnia game the only two men to accompany the women protesters were both arrested.

Team Melli wants to reach the
second round for the first time

"I was on a the same flight to Frankfurt last week as the team and I talked to star players such as Ali Daei and Ali Karimi, and the manager (Branko Ivankovic) and they all believe we should be allowed to watch the games," Dokouhaki says.

 

 

For most people in Iran the World Cup can't come soon enough simply because it means something good may be written about their country for a change.

 

Over 60% of the population is aged under 30 and football often provides them with one area of freedom and social expression.

Over 60% of the population is aged under 30 and football often provides them with one area of freedom and social expression.

 

There is also a wish to repeat the euphoric scenes that greeted the team's historic 2-1 win over the USA during their last appearance at a finals in 1998, and when they beat Bahrain to qualify this time.

Street party

On both occasions thousands poured onto the streets, untroubled by the police, hooting car horns and chanting songs with women even removing their traditional headscarves in a symbolic display.

On the pitch the team may never have a better chance. Under the guidance of Ivankovic and with players such as Ali Karimi, Mehdi Mahdivikia, and Vahid Hashemian performing well in the German Bundesliga, hopes of progressing to the second round from a group including Portugal, Mexico and Angola are cautiously high.

But it is likely more bad headlines will come Iran's way before good ones do. A German far right party has said it will target the match between Iran and Angola in Leipzig.

Nonetheless a nation is hopeful.

"There is currently a saying that if Iran wins one game then for one night there will be a party in the street and no Islamic Republic," says Arefi. "If they win two then there will be a revolution. Of course it is a joke… but you never know."