Tehran was recently drawn into a frenzy as hundreds of passionate soccer fans flooded into a local hotel, eager for a snapshot sight of the international soccer superstar, Cristiano Ronaldo. The Portuguese star had just arrived in the Iranian capital, tagging along with his Saudi teammates for an upcoming match.
With chants of “Ronaldo, Ronaldo” echoing through the hallways of the opulent Espians Palace Hotel, fans cheekily sidestepped police lines, swarming the public areas and transforming the otherwise quiet corridors into a makeshift grandstand.
The sought-after footballer was in Tehran accompanying the Saudi football club Al Nassr, whom he was visiting for the first time. The team is set for a face-off against Iran’s Persepolis scheduled for Sept.19. A reciprocal match is lined up in the Saudi capital, Riyadh on Nov. 27.
Ronaldo, fondly remembered for his days at Manchester United and Real Madrid, was the first among a selection of premier league players to heed the call of the oil-rich Saudi, signing up for opulent contracts and pinning his flag on Saudi teams, as the desert kingdom navigates its ambitious billion-dollar journey towards becoming a leading destination for sports and entertainment.
The forward momentum, which channels these Asian Champions League games, comes on the heels of the resuscitating diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia. A resolution was achieved earlier this year and mediated by none other than the world superpower, China. The diplomatic thaw follows the severing of ties initiated in 2016 after a disgruntled mob attacked Saudi diplomatic missions protesting the execution of a recognized Shiite cleric by the Saudi administration.
Interestingly, the 2015 Asian Champions League tournament was the last instance when Saudi and Iranian teams contested at the group stages or knockout rounds on equal grounds. With these recent developments, it seems soccer enthusiasts and avid stakeholders alike are gearing up for another adrenaline-fueled face-off.