In Tehran, Iran, it turned into a lively celebration as football superstar Cristiano Ronaldo and his Saudi Arabian club, Al-Nassr, arrived from Riyadh, effectively bringing the city to a standstill.
Thousands of fans flooded the streets to greet the five-time Ballon d’Or winner, who was making his first visit to Iran for an AFC Champions League match against Persepolis FC.
Upon their arrival at Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport, Ronaldo and his Al-Nassr teammates were warmly received by legendary Iranian footballer and coach Ali Daei, whose record of 109 international goals in 149 appearances was surpassed by the Portuguese captain in 2021.
As the Al-Nassr convoy made its way from the airport to the Espinas Hotel in northern Tehran, swarms of fans chanted Ronaldo’s nаme and pursued his bus in hopes of catching a glimpse of the superstar.
“It was a truly remarkable spectacle,” said Mehrdad Hashemi, a football fan and Persepolis supporter. “I’ve never witnessed such an enthusiastic welcome for any foreign celebrity in Iran.”
Tehran’s municipal authorities erected large banners along the route to the hotel, welcoming Ronaldo and his team in Persian, English, and Arabic—a privilege typically reserved for foreign heads of state.
Many fans sporting Al-Nassr jerseys journeyed from distant cities and provinces, with some even willing to pay hefty sums for rooms at the suρer-luxurious hotel where Ronaldo and his teammates were staying, all in the hope of encountering the football star.
“I don’t earn that much, but I was still willing to book a room there just to meet my favorite footballer. Unfortunately, there were no rooms available,” lamented Ahmed, an ardent football fan and software engineer.
Despite stringent security measures, numerous fans managed to enter the hotel’s lobby, while others hiked up the surrounding hills in hopes of getting closer to the action.
A handful of fortunate individuals had the opportunity to meet the football icon. Among them was 5-year-old Adrian, who was seen in a crowd outside the hotel wearing an Al-Nassr jersey. A video captured him in tears because he was unable to meet Ronaldo. The Saudi club officials noticed the video and arranged for Adrian to meet Ronaldo.
The heartwarming encounter, caught on camera, featured the young boy receiving a warm embrace from the Portuguese star and being gifted a signed jersey after performing Ronaldo’s signature “Siu” celebration.
Another fan who had the privilege of meeting Ronaldo was Fatemeh Hammami, a 34-year-old artist with severe paralysis. Despite her physical challenges, Hammami had gained international recognition for her portraits of celebrities, including Ronaldo, which she created using her feet.
When she learned that Ronaldo would be in town, she posted a portrait of him on her Instagram page, which boasts over 216,000 followers, and expressed her desire for a meeting.
“Ronaldo is in Iran! God, I ask you to please make my wish come true. To see Ronaldo and present him with my painting of him. Oh, please, God, make a way for it to happen. I only have you,” wrote Hammami.
Her wish came true when she found herself at the hotel where Ronaldo was staying, thanks to the coordination between the home team and Al-Nassr officials. As Ronaldo walked into the room and saw Hammami with two portraits of him, he embraced her and praised her artistic talent.
Hammami, in turn, gifted the two paintings to Ronaldo, and he presented her with a signed Al-Nassr shirt. Overjoyed, the gifted artist took to Instagram once more to share her happiness: “My meeting with Cristiano Ronaldo. God, thank you for making my dream come true.”
The Al-Nassr-Persepolis match took place several months after Iran and Saudi Arabia announced the normalization of diplomatic relations following seven years of tensions. This event served as a confidence-building measure of sorts. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman also expressed his appreciation for the warm reception that Al-Nassr received in Iran.
However, the match was not without controversy. It was held behind closed doors at the 78,000-seat Azadi Stadium because the home team faced a penalty from the Asian Football Confederation, depriving fans of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to watch the iconic footballer in action.
Persepolis FC, a top-tier Iranian football club, was serving a one-match stadium ban due to a contentious social media post from the 2021-22 season during their AFC Champions League matches against Indian club FC Goa. The Indian side had lodged a complaint, labeling the post as оffensive.
“It was certainly disappointing because we don’t often have the chance to see superstar footballers like Ronaldo playing in Iran. I’m not sure if we’ll witness such a spectacle again in the near future,” remarked Arya Rajabi, a football fan from Tehran.
Additionally, Reza Darvish, the head of Persepolis FC, found himself in an uncomfortable position after gifting Ronaldo two expensive handwoven Persian carpets.
Darvish, who has faced criticism for delaying player payments, defended himself by stating that the carpets were presented to the Portuguese footballer on behalf of a prominent Iranian carpet-seller and were not purchased using the team’s funds.
There were also reports that Ronaldo and Al-Nassr players were provided with special SIM cards during their stay in the Iranian capital, granting them unrestricted Internet access without filters. Some individuals were displeased with this decision and called for similar “privileges” for ordinary Iranians.
After a resounding 2-0 victory, Ronaldo took to social media to express his gratitude for Iran’s hospitality. “Great to get the win today,” he wrote. “A very special thank you to the fans and to all the Iranian people who have made this visit so special for us. Such an incredibly warm welcome!”