The first time in the last seven years of a Saudi football team in Iran

Cristiano Ronaldo’s Al-Nassr has arrived in Tehran for the Asian Champions League: it is an important political event, as well as a sporting one

The Asian Champions League is the top football competition for club teams on the continent, it begins this week and is the first after the huge investments by Saudi Arabian teams that characterized the summer. Very famous and important players such as Cristiano Ronaldo (who already played in the last edition), Neymar, Karim Benzema and Marcelo Brozovic will participate in the tournament. However, it will not be a competition relevant only for the sporting aspect: on Tuesday evening, for the first time in seven years, a team from Saudi Arabia will play in Iran. In the following weeks it will happen with two other Saudi teams, and then the Iranian teams will go to Saudi Arabia.

This is big news because matches between teams from these two countries have been played on a neutral pitch for seven years. Iran and Saudi Arabia have been adversaries for many years, during which they clashed for supremacy in the Persian Gulf region: among other things, it was impossible for players of Saudi nationality to receive a visa to go to Tehran. Now things are slowly changing.

Somewhat surprisingly, the situation was resolved last March and in September the two football federations also made an agreement to re-establish relations. The first Saudi team to return to Iran is Al-Nassr, the one where some of the most famous foreign footballers play, such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Sadio Mané, Marcelo Brozovic and Aymeric Laporte. Al-Nassr will play against Persepolis, one of the most successful Iranian teams.

Cristiano Ronaldo in Tehran (EPA/FC PERSEPOLIS)

The formal severing of diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia occurred seven years ago, when Iran recalled its ambassador after Saudi Arabia sentenced the prominent Shiite cleric Nimr al Nimr to death. At the time there were huge protests in Iran, and the Saudi embassy in Tehran was set on fire. After years of clashes, including violent ones, in March the two countries surprisingly announced an agreement to re-establish diplomatic relations. The agreement was signed in China, in Beijing, in the presence of the head of Chinese diplomacy Wang Yi, and three months later it was followed by the reopening of the respective embassies.

– Read also: The roots of conflicts between Sunnis and Shiites

The return of a Saudi team to Iran, already an important event in itself, took on further prominence due to the notoriety of the players involved.

Cristiano Ronaldo, 38, remains one of the most famous footballers in the world and one of the best to ever grace an Iranian pitch. In Iran, football has a large following: in 2018, when Persepolis played the return leg of the Asian Champions League final at home (lost to the Japanese Kashima Antlers), there were over 100 thousand people in the stands of the Azadi stadium in Tehran. On Tuesday, however, the match will be played without an audience, due to a previous disqualification of the Persepolis pitch but the arrival of the Al-Nassr team and in particular Ronaldo was accompanied by a considerable crowd from the airport and then to the hotel reserved for the team.

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The arrival of the Saudi team players in Iran also raised some issues related to Internet access.

Following the protests a year ago over the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, the Iranian regime blocked the use of many Western apps, including Instagram, WhatsApp and Telegram (even before the protests in Iran several apps and sites were blocked for regime censorship). In the days before Cristiano Ronaldo’s arrival, the CEO of Persepolis had announced that the Iranian government would provide Al-Nassr footballers with a special telephone card with full access to the network. The news had provoked protests from many Iranians and the Minister of Tourism had then denied it, at least officially.

– Read also: One year after Mahsa Amini’s death

It is not clear if and how Al-Nassr players will be able to freely access the Internet and on Ronaldo’s social profiles there are already many comments from fans giving advice on how to get around the ban. Tens of millions of Iranians use a VPN (i.e. a Virtual Private Network) every day to deceive the IP address recognition mechanisms and therefore overcome the blocks imposed by the regime.

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Between 2 and 3 October two other Saudi clubs are expected in Iran: on 2 October Al-Ittihad, the team where the Frenchman Karim Benzema plays, will play against Sepahan, in Eshfahan; on the 3rd, Al-Hilal, of the Brazilian Neymar, will play again in Tehran against Nassaji Mazandaran. Both matches will be valid for the group stage (10 of 4 teams each) of the Asian Champions League, which will end on 13 December, while the direct elimination stage will start on 12 February. The final, with home and away matches, will be played on 11 and 18 May 2024.

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