By Michael Church
HONG KONG (Reuters) - Iranian equality campaigners have questioned whether Saturday's decision to admit female fans to the Azadi Stadium for the Asian Champions League final was a one-off or the start of a new era for sport in the country.
Authorities in the conservative Islamic nation relaxed a ban on female fans at club football matches that has been in place since 1981 to permit a group of women to attend the game between Tehran's Persepolis and Kashima Antlers from Japan.
World governing body FIFA said more than 1,000 women attended, though local news agency ISNA put the figure at around 500.
In front of a total crowd of some 80,000, Iran's best-supported club Persepolis missed out on the opportunity to win their first-ever Asian title when they failed to overturn a 2-0 first-leg deficit.
"This big festival of football passed," said the campaign group Open Stadiums in a post on Twitter after the game.
"Our Q is: Do they let women attend next matches or not. What gonna be their excuses?! We'll wait and see."
Access to stadiums for women in the football-mad nation has become a major issue, with thousands of female fans able to watch their team outside their homeland at the World Cup finals in Russia and at other major events but frustrated by the restrictions at home.
A small number of female fans were given access to a friendly match featuring the Carlos Queiroz-coached national team in Tehran against Bolivia in August. Reports on social media said those attending the Persepolis game on Saturday were a hand-selected group who watched from a designated area.
No female fans were allowed to buy tickets that were available on general sale for the final, campaigners said.
FIFA president Gianni Infantino and his Asian Football Confederation (AFC) counterpart Sheikh Salman bin Khalifa attended the game and Infantino praised Iranian officials for the decision to permit women to attend days after FIFA general secretary Fatma Samoura met campaigners in Switzerland.
"I was delighted to personally witness that, for the first time in 40 years, Iranian female football fans were allowed to attend an official match again," Infantino said in a statement.
"The fact that over 1,000 women could cheer their favourite team and that this took place during Asian football's most important game of the season, the AFC Champions League finale, makes this occasion even more special."
Sheikh Salman was also present at the ground-breaking ceremony for the National Centre for Iranian Football which includes facilities for women's football and futsal as well as for the national men's teams.
Iranian women are actively involved in the game and the country is the number one ranked team in futsal in Asia, successfully defending their continental title in May with victory over Japan in the final in Bangkok.
"Football in Asia has always been inclusive and the AFC welcomes supporters no matter their creed, beliefs, gender or race," said Sheikh Salman after the Champions League final.
"I thank the authorities in Iran for making it possible for a diverse and socially representative crowd to witness an extraordinary occasion. Tonight, was historic in so many ways and showed that the AFC continues to develop their competitions."
(Editing by Clare Fallon)