Portuguese football star Cristiano Ronaldo received a warm reception as he arrived with his Saudi team in Tehran on September 18 for an Asian Champions League match against Persepolis FC the next day.
Upon the arrival of the Al-Nassr squad at Tehran International Airport, Ronaldo and his teammates, including Sadio Mané, Aymeric Laporte, Alex Teixeira, Otávio Edmilson da Silva Monteiro and Marcelo Brozović were greeted by officials of Persepolis and Saudi diplomats.
Outside the airport, videos released on social media showed fans running down the road in pursuit of the yellow team bus carrying the Al-Nassr squad to its hotel.
🎞️ Despite intense preparations to transport the #CristianoRonaldo and his Al-Nasr to #Tehran's Espinas Hotel, the team was unexpectedly mobbed at the hotel and its entrance was destroyed by the commotion. Ronaldo shared a laugh while navigating the crowd, escorted by Saudi… pic.twitter.com/ymcyTAHPro— IranWire (@IranWireEnglish) September 18, 2023
The bus’s route was lined with banners featuring images of Ronaldo and greetings in Persian, Arabic and English, while the streets were crowded with fans who raised welcome banners and pictures of Al-Nassr’s captain.
Chanting Ronaldo’s name, supporters stormed into the team's hotel after its arrival, despite attempts by security personnel to prevent them.
🎞️ Buses carrying #CristianoRonaldo and the Al-Nasr team are escorted to their hotel in #Tehran by state security. Concerns over protests and giving Ronaldo a negative impression led the government to secure roads and close all routes related to the bus's movements.@ALNasrSC pic.twitter.com/5tmaUq86A7— IranWire (@IranWireEnglish) September 18, 2023
Some Iranian social media users pointed out that the Islamic Republic seemed to prioritize the deployment of security forces on the streets to crackdown on dissent over the security of Ronaldo and his teammates.
Ahead of the team’s arrival, a controversy was sparked by the announcement that the players would be provided special SIM cards that would enable them to access the internet without restrictions – something Iranian citizens cannot do.
🎞️ The Saudi Arabian Al-Nasr football team has announced that it is cancelling its training session at Azadi Stadium, in #Tehran, due to significant security concerns and a lack of organization for the team’s visit.@ALNasrSC #CristianoRonaldo pic.twitter.com/Iq9j5BFoNR— IranWire (@IranWireEnglish) September 18, 2023
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 Saudi Arabian Al-Nasr football team landed in #Tehran on their private club flight, leading officials from #Iran's Football Federation, Persepolis Club, and the Tehran Governor's Office converged on the airport to welcome #CristianoRonaldo . They presented him with gifts,… pic.twitter.com/984aPUA7aD— IranWire (@IranWireEnglish) September 18, 2023
The match opposing Al-Nassr to Persepolis FC is scheduled to be played at Tehran Azadi Stadium without spectators. The return game on November 27 is to 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.