Iranian officials are taking extra measures to ensure the safety of Portuguese football star Cristiano Ronaldo and his Saudi team during their planned visit to Iran, local media reported.
Ronaldo’s team, Al-Nassr, is expected to arrive in Tehran next week for an Asian Champions League match against Persepolis FC.
According to Khabarvarzashi newspaper, the Iranian football federation, in coordination with various government institutions, has drafted a detailed security plan to make sure that the bus carrying the Saudi team from Tehran International Airport to the hotel travels without interruption.
Earlier this week, Reza Darwish, the CEO of Persepolis, confirmed that upon the arrival of the Al-Nassr team, the players, coaches and other staff of the club will be provided special SIM cards that will enable them to access the internet without restrictions – something Iranian citizens cannot do.
The internet in the country is heavily restricted, with thousands of websites and all major global messaging and social media platforms being blocked.
The restrictions were ramped up after anti-government protests erupted across the country in September last year.
The match opposing Al-Nassr to Persepolis FC is scheduled to be played at Tehran Azadi Stadium without spectators on September 19. The return game on November 27 will be held in Riyadh.
Two other Saudi Pro League teams – Al-Ittihad, featuring ex-Real Madrid striker Benzema, and Al-Hilal, which recently signed Neymar from Paris Saint-Germain – are scheduled to play in Iran on October 2 and October 3, respectively.
Earlier this month, the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) announced that matches between teams from the two countries would be played on a home-and-away basis for the first time in years.
Matches between Iranian and Saudi teams had been played in stadiums on neutral territory since 2016 because strained diplomatic ties between the two regional rivals.
The arrival of global football stars alongside Saudi teams in Iran may project a wrong image of Iran as a safe destination for foreigners.
In recent years, many governments have urged their nationals not to travel to Iran, warning that they face the risk of arbitrary arrest or unfair trial.
Sweden, the European Union and Tehran have recently confirmed that a Swedish national has been held in Iran for more than a year, the latest known case of a foreign national being held hostage by the Islamic Republic.
But Ronaldo and other players may opt not to travel to Iran.
In 2022, FC Barcelona coach Xavi Hernández was barred from entering the United States with his team due to previous visits to Iran during his time as a player for the Qatari club Al-Sadd from 2015 to 2019.
Last week, media outlets reported that a company responsible for insuring Cristiano Ronaldo and his family warned the player he could face a similar situation if he were to travel to Iran.