When Saudi Pro League team Al Nassr FC visited Iran to play Tehran-based Persian Gulf Pro League side Persepolis FC in their opening match of the AFC Champions League in September, Cristiano Ronaldo grabbed the headlines as fans and officials scrambled to welcome the Portuguese star.
Fans tracked the five-time Ballon d’Or winner’s plane, waited for him at the airport, chased his bus, climbed a hill to the hotel where he was staying, and made the Saudi club cancel its training on the first day.
Tehran’s municipality put up large banners welcoming Ronaldo and Al Nassr in several languages, the Persepolis director gave the Portuguese star a handwoven Persian carpet – and apparently a special SIM card so he could have unrestricted internet access – and Ronaldo met with the Saudi ambassador to Iran.
Two months on, the Iranian side are making a historic trip to the Saudi capital Riyadh – their first since the resumption of diplomatic relations between both countries.
The Asian nations agreed to a “groundbreaking” deal, brokered a few weeks before the match in Tehran, to resume home and away football matches between club sides after seven years of competing at neutral venues.
In Tehran, fans were delighted to have Ronaldo in their midst despite not catching a glimpse of the 38-year-old as the match was played behind closed doors.
“Even though we couldn’t go watch that match live because no spectators were allowed, it was still nice to have international stars here. We haven’t had that for a long while,” Saman, a 24-year-old Persepolis fan, told our reporters.
“It doesn’t look like we’re beating Ronaldo in the group stage, but it would be nice to get a win in Saudi Arabia,” Saman said.
Football diplomacy has gone far from smoothly for Iran, though.
Persepolis were scheduled to arrive in the kingdom on Friday, but their flight was cancelled, reportedly because Saudi officials took issue with the airline that was being used to transport the players. The issue was resolved and the team arrived early Sunday.
An early October match between Sepahan and Al Ittihad was cancelled – and eventually declared a 3-0 win for the Saudi club by the AFC – because a bust of Qassem Soleimani, the top Iranian general assassinated by the United States in 2020, was installed at the stadium.
Al Nassr sit atop the AFC Champions League Group E table with four wins out of four and only need a draw to confirm their progress to the next round.
Persepolis are placed second after four matches, with a narrow lead over third-placed Istiklol and fourth-placed Al Duhail.
Al Nassr form
The Saudi side are in prolific form ahead of Monday’s tie at the Al-Awwal Park Stadium and have enjoyed a string of wins in both in their domestic league and the regional competition. Ronaldo goes into the match on the back of a two-goal outing in Al Nassr’s 3-0 win over Al Akhdoud on Friday.
Recent results: W W W W W
Persepolis are in the middle of a poor run of form, with a loss and two draws in their home league and a draw in their last AFC Champions League match against Tajik side Istiklol. The club – one of the oldest and most popular in Iran – will look for a victory on the pitch to make up for the 2-0 home loss in Tehran and secure qualification as one of the three best second-placed teams from the West Zone of the competition. They have seven points from four matches.
Recent results: L D D D W
The teams have now met on four occasions in the competition, and the Saudi side hold a slight edge with two wins. Persepolis have recorded one win, in the 2015 AFC Champions League, and their meeting in the 2020 edition ended in a draw.