April 15, 2024

Thousands turned up to welcome the footballer ahead of AFC Champions League match to be played behind closed doors.

Tehran, Iran – Hundreds of football fans welcomed Cristiano Ronaldo in Tehran as the Portugal football player arrived in the Iranian capital with the Al Nassr squad ahead of the AFC Champions League match against Persepolis FC.

Fans tracked the aircraft carrying the player ahead of its landing at the Imam Khomeini International Airport on Monday. Hundreds of fans, many in Al Nassr jerseys, then gathered to shout his name and cheer him on the moment the team bus left the airport in the capital.

The Tehran municipality adorned the city with banners welcoming Ronaldo and his teammates, displaying the messages in Farsi, English and Arabic.

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Al Nassr’s Cristiano Ronaldo and teammates arrive at Imam Khomeini International Airport in Tehran [Handout: Persepolis Club/WANA via Reuters]

However, the fans who went to great lengths to catch a glimpse of the superstar will not be able to see him in action.

Persepolis will play the match on Wednesday behind closed doors as punishment by the AFC for a social media post the team made in 2020 deemed to be offensive to an Indian club.

The crowd ban is being implemented now since this is the club’s first home Asian Champions League match after COVID-19 restrictions were lifted. The AFC rejected a request by the club to defer the punishment to another match.

Crowd turns up in numbers

Videos posted online showed heavy security presence around the bus that transported the players to the luxurious Espinas Palace hotel in northwestern Tehran.

Close to the hotel, clips showed how scores of fans ran after the bus. The driver of the bus is reported to have gained about 150,000 followers on Instagram within a few hours.

Many more gathered at the entrance of the hotel when the team arrived, and some had found their way inside the lobby and corridors. A video showed hundreds climbing the hills behind the hotel.

The Al Nassr squad was surrounded when they arrived, and players slowly made their way up to the three floors that were reserved for them amid deafening chants of Ronaldo’s name.

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Ronaldo is welcomed upon arrival at Imam Khomeini International Airport in Tehran [Handout via Reuters]

The Saudi club was eventually forced to cancel its training session for the day.

Ronaldo also met Abdullah Alanazi, who, earlier this month, began his charge as the Saudi ambassador to Tehran after Iran and Saudi Arabia exchanged envoys following a China-brokered deal in March that restored diplomatic relations after a seven-year rift.

The Persepolis manager presented the footballer with a colourful handwoven Persian carpet, one of Iran’s most famous exports.

Reza Darvish, president of the Persepolis club, said: “I asked him, ‘Do you know one of the reasons you’re very popular in Iran is that you have supported the people of Palestine’ and he said, ‘Yes, I’m very happy about this.’”

Last week, Darvish announced that Ronaldo and all Al Nassr players and staff will be given special SIM cards for the duration of their stay in Iran that will allow them to access the internet without any blocks – something Iranian citizens are unable to do.

Tens of thousands of fans are disappointed that they will not get to watch the five-time Ballon d’Or winner in action at the Azadi Stadium in Tehran.

“This will probably be the only time Ronaldo will ever play an official football match in Iran and we can’t be there to watch it happen. It’s a huge blow,” a 23-year-old fan told Al Jazeera.

While there is no denying how popular Ronaldo is, some Iranians online pointed out that the sheer level of trouble people went through to catch even the slightest glimpse of the superstar may also be rooted in the country’s isolation from major international events and figures due to politics and sanctions.

“The Iranian nation has been forced to be content with seeing the world’s phenomena from television, without experiencing them first-hand. That’s true for a range of things, from events and major stars to vehicles and new technologies,” former lawmaker Abdolkarim Hosseinzadeh wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter.

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