Crowds of Iranian football fans gave Cristiano Ronaldo an excited welcome on Monday as his Saudi team arrived in Tehran for the first home-and-away club tie since the two countries resumed diplomatic relations.
Fans chanted the name of the Portuguese five-time world player of the year as he arrived with his Al Nassr teammates to face Iran’s leading club Persepolis in the Asian Champions League today. The match will be the first since Tehran and Riyadh reached a China-brokered deal that was announced in March.
Teams from both countries had only played matches on neutral grounds since 2016 when Saudi Arabia and Iran severed ties. In Tehran, excitement filled the air as fans eagerly waited to catch a glimpse of 38-year-old Ronaldo as he left Iran’s Imam Khomeini’s airport with his teammates.
“It was a very good feeling, and we all enjoyed it,” Al Nassr manager Luis Castro said in his press conference. “We saw a series of scenes and many Iranian fans were even holding Al Nassr team shirts, which was a pleasant event for us.”
Large crowds of cheering fans lined the streets as Ronaldo arrived at a hotel in Tehran on board the team bus. Others chanting “Ronaldo, Ronaldo!” even flooded into the hotel lobby. Posters of the former Manchester United, Real Madrid and Juventus star with “Welcome”, written in Arabic, English and Farsi sprung up in the Iranian capital’s main streets.
Ahead of the match, Persepolis manager Yahya Golmohammadi expressed his happiness at hosting the “great team” of Al Nassr, but said his team was equal to the challenge of taking on the Saudi club. “I think it will be a beautiful game and will have a lot of excitement,” said 28-year-old Navid Borhanifar, a Ronaldo fan. “It’s very exciting for me.”
Sadly for the fans, none will be allowed to attend the match which will be held at the gigantic Azadi stadium, which can host up to 90,000 people. The Asian Football Confederation have ruled that the game be played behind closed doors as punishment for a controversial 2021 online post by Persepolis before a match against an Indian team.
Both managers have lamented the absence of the fans. “An empty stadium does not give the taste of real football,” Castro said. “We are sad that this great game is without spectators,” Golmohammadi said.
Ronaldo and his teammates have been placed under the protection of an “elite unit”, specialised in securing presidential visits, according to sports website Varzesh 3. The unit will be in charge of “preventing any contact between fans and players of the Saudi team,” it added.
Ronaldo’s arrival has also sparked a debate over Iran’s internet restrictions. Iran has imposed strict curbs – including on WhatsApp and Instagram – since last year’s mass protests triggered by the death in custody of Mahsa Amini. Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian Kurd, had been arrested for allegedly violating the Islamic republic’s dress code for women.
Last week, Persepolis’s general manager Reza Darvish proposed that the Saudi team be given SIM cards with unfiltered internet access. “I have talked to the CEO of Irancell (a local provider and sponsor to Persepolis) and asked for SIM cards for... players and those who accompany them with unlimited Internet,” he said.
Ronaldo himself has more than 604mn Instagram followers. The 2023-2024 Asian Champions League officially begins this week with the spotlight on Saudi Arabia which alongside Ronaldo has lured a host of stars including Karim Benzema, Neymar and Sadio Mane. Persepolis are one of Iran and the region’s most successful clubs and reached the final of the Asian Champions League in 2018 and 2020, while Al Nassr won the tournament in 1995.
Other matches between the two countries will take place in the coming weeks. Saudi’s Al Ittihad are scheduled to play Iran’s Sepahan on October 2, and Saudi club Al Hilal will meet Iran’s Nassaji Mazandaran on October 3.
Al Nassr’s Cristiano Ronaldo arrives in Tehran on Monday, a day ahead of the AFC Champions League Group E match against Persepolis. (AFP)