“Welcome Ronaldo!” The Iranians on Monday welcomed with pomp the Portuguese star of the Saudi team Al Nassr which faces the local club Persepolis Tehran, a match made possible by the diplomatic rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia. All smiles, Cristiano Ronaldo and his teammates were greeted by cries of joy from dozens of Iranian fans as they left Imam Khomeini airport by bus early in the afternoon.
Previously, “CR7”, the nickname of the 38-year-old Portuguese international, was offered a sumptuous Persian carpet by the president of the Persepolis club. Large “Welcome” banners with portraits of Al-Nassr stars were hung on the bridges of major roads crossing the immense Iranian capital, unaccustomed to welcoming international icons due to the country's diplomatic isolation. “It’s very exciting!” enthuses Navid Borhanifar, a 28-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo fan. He says he hopes for “a great match” between “the stars of Al-Nassr” and Persepolis, where “experienced players” play.
Unfortunately, no fans will be able to attend the match on Tuesday in the Azadi stadium, the largest in the country with its 90,000 seats. The fault lies with a sanction imposed by the Asian Confederation (AFC) after the publication in 2021 of a controversial post on the Persepolis Instagram page. The match played behind closed doors will however be broadcast on television (9:30 p.m. local, 6:00 p.m. GMT). Between now and kick-off, Al-Nassr players will be placed under the security of an “elite unit” of law enforcement, specialized in presidential trips, according to the sports site Varzesh 3. They were tasked with “preventing any contact between fans and players” of the Saudi team, he said.
On a sporting level, the challenge is to get off to a good start in the Asian Champions League, of which the Saudi clubs are now favorites after having strengthened significantly during the summer. Al-Nassr thus recruited the Senegalese Sadio Mané and the Ivorian Séko Fofana. Al-Nassr will try to avenge their defeat against the Reds in the semi-finals of the competition in 2020. The most successful and popular club in Iran, Persepolis was twice finalist in the event in 2018 and 2020, so that Al-Nassr won it in 1995.
This match also has a diplomatic dimension since it pits Saudi and Iranian clubs on opposing ground, and not on neutral ground as has been the case for seven years. Monday evening, Al-Ittihad, another Saudi club, was due to welcome Iranian team Sepahan to Riyadh. The AFC gave the green light in August, five months after the agreement to resume ties between the two Middle East heavyweights concluded in March under the aegis of China. Sunni-majority Saudi Arabia and Shiite-majority Iran severed relations in 2016 after the attack on Saudi diplomatic missions by demonstrators from the Islamic Republic who were protesting Riyadh's execution of a Shiite cleric. The AFC then found an arrangement, described at the time as “very unfortunate”, allowing teams from the two countries to face each other on neutral ground.