On Monday, Iranians warmly welcomed Cristiano Ronaldo, the star of the Saudi team Al-Nr, which is scheduled to face local club Persepolis Tehran in the Asian Champions League. The match will take place thanks to diplomatic rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
The frenzy surrounding Cristiano Ronaldo was so intense that dozens of fans briefly burst into the lobby of his team hotel, trying to approach him and take photos of him. Earlier, the Portuguese footballer and teammates leaving Imam Khomeini airport by bus were greeted with shouts of joy by dozens of Iranian admirers. “CR7” received a special gift from the president of the Persepolis club – an original Persian carpet.
Large banners reading “Welcome” in English, Arabic and Persian with portraits of Al-Nr stars were hung on bridges of major roads crossing Iran’s vast capital, unaccustomed to welcoming international stars due to the country’s diplomatic isolation.
However, Iranian fans may feel disappointed, because on Tuesday evening there will be no spectators at the Azadi Stadium, the largest 90,000-meter stadium in the country. This is the result of sanctions imposed by the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) following the publication of a controversial post on Persepolis’ Instagram in 2021. However, the match played behind closed doors will be broadcast on television.
According to the Varzesh 3 sports portal, until the start of the match, Al-Nr players are under the care of an “elite unit” of the security authorities specializing in the protection of the most important people in the state.
Persepolis, the most successful and popular club in Iran, has been a finalist of the Asian Champions League twice, in 2018 and 2020, while Al-Nr won it in 1995.
This match also has a diplomatic dimension, as it is the first time that the Saudi Arabian and Iranian clubs will face each other on their home turf, rather than on neutral ground, as has been the case for seven years.
The AFC gave the green light to this in August, five months after an agreement to resume relations between the two Middle Eastern countries reached in March under the aegis of China.
Sunni-majority Saudi Arabia and Shiite-majority Iran severed relations in 2016 after Islamic Republic protesters attacked Saudi diplomatic missions while protesting the execution of a Shiite cleric in Riyadh. Since then, teams from both countries have played each other only on neutral ground. (PAP)