Welcome Ronaldo!" The Iranians on Monday welcomed with pomp the Portuguese star of the Saudi team of Al Nassr who face the local club of Persepolis Tehran, a match made possible by the diplomatic rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Smiling, Cristiano Ronaldo and his teammates were greeted by shouts of joy from dozens of Iranian fans as they left Imam Khomeini Airport by bus in the early afternoon.
Previously, "CR7", the nickname of the 38-year-old Portuguese international, was presented with a sumptuous Persian rug 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 huge Iranian capital, unaccustomed to hosting international icons due to the country's diplomatic isolation. "It's very exciting!" enthuses Navid Borhanifar, a 28-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo fan. He said he hoped for "a beautiful match" between "the stars of Al-Nassr" and Persepolis, where "experienced players" play.
A meeting behind closed doors
Unfortunately, no fans will be able to attend Tuesday's match at the Azadi Stadium, the largest in the country with 90,000 seats. The fault is a sanction imposed by the Asian Confederation (AFC) after the publication in 2021 of a controversial post on the Instagram page of Persepolis. The match played behind closed doors will, however, be broadcast on television (21:30 local, 18:00 GMT). By kick-off, Al-Nassr's players will be placed under the safety of an "elite unit" of law enforcement, which specializes in presidential travel, according to sports site Varzesh 3. They were instructed to "prevent any contact between fans and players" of the Saudi team, he said.
On the sporting front, the challenge is to start the Asian Champions League well, of which Saudi clubs are now favorites after having strengthened strongly during the summer. Al-Nassr recruited Senegalese Sadio Mané and Ivorian Séko Fofana. Al-Nassr will try to avenge their defeat to the Reds in the semi-finals of the competition in 2020. The most successful and popular club in Iran, Persepolis has twice been runners-up in the event in 2018 and 2020, while Al-Nassr won it in 1995.
A match with a strong diplomatic dimension
This match also has a diplomatic dimension since it opposes Saudi and Iranian clubs on opposing ground, and not on neutral ground as was the case for seven years. On Monday night, Al-Ittihad, another Saudi club, was due to host Iranian Sepahan in Riyadh. The AFC gave the green light in August, five months after the agreement to resume ties between the two Middle East heavyweights reached in March under the auspices of China. Sunni-majority Saudi Arabia and Shiite-majority Iran severed relations in 2016 after Saudi diplomatic missions were attacked by Islamic Republic protesters protesting Riyadh's execution of a Shiite cleric. The AFC then found an arrangement, described at the time as "very unfortunate", allowing teams from both countries to compete on neutral ground.