If non-sports lovers think the European game of soccer is confusing, spare a thought for the players and fans in Iran. While the game's rules remain the same in Tehran as anywhere else, the Iranian government's regulations about who can play and watch the games are as complex as the pattern of a Persian rug. Following the 1979 Iranian Revolution, female soccer fans were banned from attending public sporting events in their homeland. Then unexpectedly in April, the country's controversial president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, an avid soccer fan, announced that the decades-old restriction on women was over. Women would be allowed to enter stadiums to watch sporting events, but would be seated in separate sections. But a few weeks later, Iran's supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the last word on what is permissible behaviour in Iran, insisted that Mr Ahmadinejad's sporting declaration was null and void. While Iran's ruling elite and ordinary Iranians continue to debate the Ayatollah's contentious ruling, a dozen young Iranian women are determined to keep their eyes firmly on the ball. And not just as fans, but as players on the field. As members of Iran's first all-female soccer team, they have shaken their country's notion of what roles women can play not only on the field, but in society as a whole. Formed nine months ago, the players range in age from 16 to 27. The youngest are still in high school, while the older women are at university, majoring in everything from architecture and physical education to geology and computer science. Depending on their individual ranking, they receive a stipend ranging from US$40 to US$100 per month. Though they rarely speak to the foreign media, during a recent UN-sponsored visit to Iran, I was able to meet the team's coach, 32-year-old Ramak Mirmotalebi, and two of her star players - Katayoan Tafazoli, 22, and Somajeh Baftanli, 20, in the coffee shop of my Tehran hotel. They were dressed in blue jeans and dark blouses and wore the traditional hijab headscarf. The coach and her two players are earnest and think carefully before they speak. Though clearly committed to their sporting careers, they are aware that theirs is much more than a sports story, it's really about the growing drive for women's rights. Soccer has been an infatuation for Iranians ever since the British introduced the game in the 1920s. Today, it is played by millions of men and boys across the country. Tehran alone has 10 stadiums, including the huge Azadi (Freedom) Stadium that seats 100,000 people. Much of the foreign media has focused on the news that women are now, once again, banned from attending public matches, yet Iranian women - who are strikingly articulate, confident and well educated - actually have more rights in Iran than other strict Islamic nations such as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. They can drive, vote, own businesses and property, and run for political office. The majority of the country's university graduates are women. Divorce is allowed and is not uncommon. It's true, though, that Iranian women live under what many western women would view as weighty restrictions. Aside from the hijab obligation, they are cautioned against shaking hands with a man, or associating with men who are not members of their family. Women are also not allowed to sing in public. But a growing number of women are ignoring such edicts. Coach Mirmotalebi tells me that Iran was not the first Islamic nation to launch an all-female soccer team. Jordan and Bahrain created teams four years ago. But Iran is the first to launch a team that plays sports while wearing all Islamic dress - the hijab, as well as specially designed jump suits with long sleeves and long pants. Soon after Iran introduced its all-girl Islamic team, Pakistan and Afghanistan followed with female teams of their own. Asked why suddenly a women's team has been allowed by the government, Mirmotalebi, with an enigmatic Mona Lisa-like smile, says, 'Women players are attracting large audiences and these larger audiences, in turn, attract more sponsors. The government wants more sponsors to underwrite the team's living and travelling costs.' The government-owned Iranian National Oil Company is the team's primary sponsor. 'The roles of men and women are changing in Iran,' the coach says. 'During the time of the Iran-Iraq war, it was necessary to separate women from men for security reasons. But we are the generation of the 1990s. 'We've had it easier than previous generations. So we can't accept that we cannot have some careers that were once the preserve of men only. All over the world, men and women work together. 'While we believe that this is quite logical and reasonable, we also want to keep respect for our religion, which is very important to us. But who knows what will happen in the next few years?' All three women agree that dressing like an astronaut while playing can be hot, especially during the blast-furnace heat of Iranian summers. But they are quite used to it now. What is difficult to accept is that their fathers are not permitted to watch them play. Although the team has a fan club, all members must be female, as men are not permitted to watch women play sports. Tafazoli says that she would very much like to have her father watch her games. 'But the main thing is that we are actually playing because this shows other girls what they can do. 'We work hard to win our games, and this brings more attention to us, and to the game. So soon Iranian people will get used to seeing women playing,' she says with a shy smile. 'Hopefully, in the not too distant future, my father and other male family and friends can come to watch us play.' She cherishes her time on the field, but has paid a price. Tafazoli has injured her knee and back, and doctors tell her that she will probably experience some pain for the rest of her life. She shrugs this off, though saying that injury is often a part of sports and must be accepted. Willowy and bespectacled, Somajeh Baftanli says that when she is too old to play, she wants to be a coach. Their parents, fathers and mothers alike, wholly support the team members and none have had any social problems due to playing soccer. Nor have there been any complaints from friends or neighbours. 'Everyone knows us as soccer players since we were small children!' says Baftanli with a laugh. Their games have never been broadcast on Iranian television as it is not permitted, but they have played against visiting all-girls teams from Norway, Holland and Germany. When the German team came to Tehran in April, it marked the first time an all-female soccer match had been held since the Islamic revolution 27 years ago. After the game - a 2-2 draw - they all went out to dinner and have since become close friends. The German women have invited them to play in Berlin. The team has played in Azerbaijan, Syria, Bahrain and in the West Bank. Last October, the team took part in a tournament in Jordan, where they nabbed second place. Their big dream is to play in the United States as they believe a friendly exhibition match might help bring the two nations together. Later, as we take photos in a hotel stairwell, a tall bearded man with a scowl approaches and says something to the girls in Farsi. They say something back to him and he leaves. A few minutes later, the hotel's security manager sidles up to me, apparently alerted by the busybody. He shakes his head soberly and tells me I should not be taking photographs. I hand him my press card, which has been issued by the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. As he ponders the details on the card, the women come over. They politely inform him that they agreed to have their photos taken, and he goes off satisfied. Suddenly, the fear of having landed these young women in trouble evaporates. Clearly, history is on their side, and the ball is at their feet.