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How football is helping further boost warming Saudi-Iranian ties


A billboard featuring Al-Nassr's Portuguese forward Cristiano Ronaldo (L) and Persepolis' Iranian goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand hangs on a pedestrian overpass on a highway in Tehran on September 19, 2023, ahead of the AFC Champions League group E football match between Persepolis FC and Al-Nassr FC. /CFP

A billboard featuring Al-Nassr’s Portuguese forward Cristiano Ronaldo (L) and Persepolis’ Iranian goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand hangs on a pedestrian overpass on a highway in Tehran on September 19, 2023, ahead of the AFC Champions League group E football match between Persepolis FC and Al-Nassr FC. /CFP

A billboard featuring Al-Nassr’s Portuguese forward Cristiano Ronaldo (L) and Persepolis’ Iranian goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand hangs on a pedestrian overpass on a highway in Tehran on September 19, 2023, ahead of the AFC Champions League group E football match between Persepolis FC and Al-Nassr FC. /CFP

Visuals of football fans in Tehran flocking to a hotel hosting Cristiano Ronaldo’s Al-Nassr went viral on social media earlier in September. Iranian fans were seen running after the team bus of the Riyadh-based club, with many of them wearing the Al-Nassr jersey. 

The Saudi club was in Tehran to take on Iranian champions Persepolis in their opening game of the AFC Champions League – Al-Nassr would win it 2-0 after Persepolis went down to 10 men early in the second half. The game itself was played in front of an empty Azadi Stadium as Persepolis were serving a suspension handed out by the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) two years ago.

That didn’t deter football fans in Tehran from making the most of Ronaldo’s first visit to the city. “These are things that cannot be bought,” Al-Nassr posted on their Twitter account, referring to the warm reception given by Iranian fans in Tehran. Just a few months ago, any of these scenes would have been unthinkable. 

Screenshot of a post by Al-Nassr FC showing Iranian fans welcoming its team bus in Tehran, September 18, 2023. /@AlNassrFC_EN

Screenshot of a post by Al-Nassr FC showing Iranian fans welcoming its team bus in Tehran, September 18, 2023. /@AlNassrFC_EN

Screenshot of a post by Al-Nassr FC showing Iranian fans welcoming its team bus in Tehran, September 18, 2023. /@AlNassrFC_EN

Since 2016 until last month, matches between all national teams and clubs from Saudi Arabia and Iran were mandated to be held in neutral territory as a result of the diplomatic rupture between the two countries that year. The China-brokered Saudi-Iranian rapprochement this year changed things, with the positive effects of the détente also spilling over into the sporting arena and, consequently, further strengthening ties between the two nations.

The AFC announced on September 4 that the mandate of neutral grounds for matches between teams from the two countries was coming to an end as a result of an agreement between the national football governing bodies of Saudi Arabia and Iran. The AFC termed it a “historic move.”

With the recent summer spending by some of the top Saudi clubs, which has also brought renewed attention to the AFC Champions League, the AFC would undoubtedly be pleased by the warming relations between the two Asian heavyweights, which helps avoid the unaesthetic compromise of having to arrange high-profile matches on neutral territory.

Players of Al-Nassr and Persepolis shake hands ahead of the AFC Champions League Group E soccer match between Persepolis and Al-Nassr at Azadi Stadium in Tehran, Iran on September 19, 2023. /CFP

Players of Al-Nassr and Persepolis shake hands ahead of the AFC Champions League Group E soccer match between Persepolis and Al-Nassr at Azadi Stadium in Tehran, Iran on September 19, 2023. /CFP

Players of Al-Nassr and Persepolis shake hands ahead of the AFC Champions League Group E soccer match between Persepolis and Al-Nassr at Azadi Stadium in Tehran, Iran on September 19, 2023. /CFP

In the coming week, Al-Hilal, featuring Brazilian star Neymar, are set to visit Iran to take on Nassaji Mazandaran in the second matchday of the AFC Champions League. Nassaji, who are based in the northern city of Qaemshahr, will be playing their Champions League home games at the iconic Azadi Stadium in Tehran, and Al-Hilal can expect a warm welcome similar to the one received by Al-Nassr.

The Saudi Pro League’s rising popularity, in the aftermath of a series of high-profile transfers to the league over the past few months, has, of course, added a new dimension to this equation. The league is, for the first time, being broadcast on Iranian television, signifying the major progress the two countries have made this year in bilateral relations.

Al-Nassr's Portuguese forward Cristiano Ronaldo (3rd-R) posing for a picture with officials upon arrival at Tehran's Imam Khomeini International Airport, a day ahead of the AFC Champions League group E match between Persepolis FC and Al-Nassr FC. /CFP

Al-Nassr’s Portuguese forward Cristiano Ronaldo (3rd-R) posing for a picture with officials upon arrival at Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport, a day ahead of the AFC Champions League group E match between Persepolis FC and Al-Nassr FC. /CFP

Al-Nassr’s Portuguese forward Cristiano Ronaldo (3rd-R) posing for a picture with officials upon arrival at Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport, a day ahead of the AFC Champions League group E match between Persepolis FC and Al-Nassr FC. /CFP

Alireza Ashraf, media officer at Persepolis FC, told CGTN that while it was disappointing not to be able to have fans at the stadium for the Persepolis-Al-Nassr game – the last Persepolis-Al-Nassr game in Tehran, in 2015, was attended by a staggering 100,000 fans – it was still an unforgettable experience for Iranian football fans. “There were many people at the airport when Al-Nassr arrived in Tehran, and the fans followed them on their way to the hotel and even waited around the hotel,” he said.

Events like this, Ashraf said, will help in further improving relations between the two countries. “Saudi teams have invested a lot in football and brought many big names. So it would be a chance for Iranian fans to see their beloved stars, and also, when Iranian teams go to Saudi Arabia, there will be many Iranians going there to support their teams,” he said.

“This is what happens around football matches, and in all aspects, the two countries and their people will get closer than before. Of course, these relations will help the two countries extend cooperation in economic and cultural affairs,” added Ashraf.

Iranian fans stand outside Al-Nassr's team hotel in Tehran, Iran ahead of the AFC Champions League group E match between Iran's Persepolis FC and Al-Nassr FC, on September 19, 2023. /CFP

Iranian fans stand outside Al-Nassr’s team hotel in Tehran, Iran ahead of the AFC Champions League group E match between Iran’s Persepolis FC and Al-Nassr FC, on September 19, 2023. /CFP

Iranian fans stand outside Al-Nassr’s team hotel in Tehran, Iran ahead of the AFC Champions League group E match between Iran’s Persepolis FC and Al-Nassr FC, on September 19, 2023. /CFP

Prominent Saudi media outlet Al Arabiya highlighted the power of “sports diplomacy” in a column published on its website on September 18.

“The videos showcasing numerous Iranian fans running after Al-Nassr’s team bus for long distances, and others climbing hills to catch a glimpse of Cristiano and other stars, serve as a testament to the potential of ‘sports diplomacy’ and how it can bolster the prospects of fostering positive relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran, particularly following the exchange of ambassadors and the ongoing visits of officials and ministers between the two nations,” it wrote.

With regular engagement between the two countries on the football pitch and in other sports in the near future, people-to-people contacts will certainly receive a major boost.



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