It was a carnival in the Iranian capital last week as football superstar, Cristiano Ronaldo, and his Saudi Arabian football club, Al-Nassr, flew in from Riyadh, bringing Tehran to a virtual standstill, Anadolu Agency reports.
Thousands of fans stormed the streets to welcome the five-time Ballon d’Or winner, who was visiting Iran for the first time for an AFC Champions League match against Iranian side, Persepolis FC.
Ronaldo and his Al-Nassr teammates were welcomed at Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport by legendary Iranian footballer and Coach, Ali Daei, whose long-standing record of 109 international goals in 149 appearances was broken by the Portuguese skipper in 2021.
As the Al-Nassr cavalcade made its way from the Airport to the Espinas Hotel in northern Tehran, hordes of fans chanted Ronaldo’s name and chased his bus to catch a glimpse of the superstar.
“It was a spectacular sight,” Mehrdad Hashemi, a football fan and Persepolis supporter, told Anadolu.
Never have I ever seen such a rapturous welcome for any foreign celebrity in Iran
Along the way, Tehran’s municipality had put up big banners welcoming Ronaldo and his teammates with messages in Persian, English and Arabic, a privilege usually reserved for foreign heads of state.
Many fans in Al-Nassr jerseys travelled from faraway cities and provinces, with some even doling out millions of rials for rooms at the super-luxury hotel where Ronaldo and his teammates were staying, all for a chance to cross paths with the star.
“I don’t earn that much but I was still willing to book a room there just to meet my favourite footballer. Unfortunately, there were no rooms available,” Ahmed, an avid football fan and software engineer, told Anadolu.
‘Dream come true’
Despite tight security arrangements, many fans managed to enter the lobby of the hotel, while others trekked up the hills surrounding the hotel.
There were some who were lucky enough to meet the star footballer.
One of them was 5-year-old Adrian, who appeared in a crowd outside the hotel that day sporting an Al-Nassr jersey. He was seen crying in a video because he was not able to meet Ronaldo.
The video was noticed by officials of the Saudi club, who arranged for him to meet Ronaldo. The meeting, captured on camera, saw the little boy being embraced by the Portuguese star and gifted a signed jersey after he performed the superstar’s signature “Siu” celebration.
Another fan who got a chance to meet him was Fatemeh Hammami, a 34-year-old artist with severe paralysis.
Hammami, who is 85 per cent paralyzed, has earned international fame with her portraits of celebrities from across the world, including Ronaldo, which she draws using her feet.
When she heard the Portuguese star was coming to town, she posted a portrait of Ronaldo on her Instagram page – which has over 216,000 followers – and expressed her wish 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.
She soon found herself in the hotel where Ronaldo was staying, after the home team coordinated with Al-Nassr officials to arrange the meet-up.
As the footballer walked into the room and saw the young lady with two portraits of him, he hugged her and was all praise for her artistic skills.
Hamaam gifted the two paintings to Ronaldo and he, in turn, handed her a signed Al-Nassr shirt.
The gifted artist took to Instagram again to share her joy: “My meeting with Cristiano Ronaldo. God, thank you for making my dream come true.”
Carpets and controversies
The Al-Nassr-Persepolis game came months after Iran and Saudi Arabia announced the normalisation of diplomatic ties after seven years, becoming a confidence-building exercise of sorts.
Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammad Bin Salman, also appreciated the welcome Al-Nassr received in Iran.
The match, however, also became fodder for controversies.
It was played behind closed doors at the 78,000-capacity Azadi Stadium as the home team was facing 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 football club of Iran, was serving a one-match stadium ban over a controversial social media post from the 2021-22 season during their AFC Champions League games with Indian club, FC Goa. The Indian side had filed a complaint over the post, terming it offensive.
“It definitely was a spoiler as we don’t get to see superstar footballers like Ronaldo playing in Iran very often. I am not sure we will see such a spectacle again in the near future,” Arya Rajabi, a football fan from Tehran, told Anadolu.
Reza Darvish, the head of Persepolis FC, also found himself in an awkward position after he gifted Ronaldo two expensive handwoven Persian carpets.
Darvish, who has often been criticised for delaying payments to players, defended himself, saying the carpets were given to the Portuguese footballer on behalf of a prominent Iranian carpet-seller, and were not bought from the team’s finances.
There was also news about Ronaldo and Al-Nassr players being provided special SIM cards during their stay in the Iranian capital, which allowed them to have unrestricted Internet access without filters.
Some people were miffed by the decision and asked for similar “privileges” for ordinary Iranians.
After a thumping 2-0 win, Ronaldo took to social media to acknowledge 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!”