Saudi clubs of Ronaldo, Benzema and Co to play Asian Champions League games in Iran

Asian Football Confederation announced 'groundbreaking agreement' between the two countries' federations

French forward Karim Benzema will play with his Saudi club Al Ittihad at home-and-away matches in Iran in this season's Asian Champions League following a landmark deal. AFP
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Saudi Pro League superstars Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Neymar will be allowed to play Asian Champions League games in Iran after the Asian Football Confederation announced a “groundbreaking agreement” between the two countries' federations.

After seven years of playing at neutral destinations following a breakdown in diplomatic ties, clubs of the two regional powerhouses will now be able to play in home and away ties following a lift of a travel ban on Saudi nationals traveling to Iran.

Since the AFC ruling on using neutral venues took effect in 2016, Saudi and Iranian clubs drawn together in the Champions League used stadiums in Dubai and Doha. Iranian teams did play in Saudi cities during the Covid-19 pandemic when single venues were used for games between teams from multiple countries under strict health rules.

The AFC said it "welcomes the historic move" as it reflects the commitment of Saudi Arabia and Iran "towards fostering closer ties between their respective footballing communities".

It allows "clubs to host matches on their home turf and visiting the respective away stadiums, creating a more engaging and exciting experience for the fans and players alike".

In March, a China-brokered deal saw the long-time rivals agree to restore diplomatic relations and reopen their respective embassies.

Last month, Iran's top diplomat preached unity and dialogue during his first visit to Saudi Arabia since the surprise rapprochement was announced, saying bilateral ties were "progressing in the right direction".

The AFC Champions League season is due to start on September 18, with Ronaldo's Al Nassr facing Iran's Persepolis the following day. The return game on November 27 will be played in Riyadh.

Saudi champions Al Ittihad, captained by current Ballon d'Or holder Benzema, are scheduled to play Iran's Sepahan on October 2, and Al Hilal, who last month announced the signing of Brazilian forward Neymar, are scheduled to meet Iran's Nassaji Mazandaran on October 3.

The return games in Saudi Arabia are set for December 12.

“Passionate fans across Saudi Arabia, Iran and the whole of Asia can now look forward to a thrilling new chapter in club and national team football,” the AFC said, adding the countries’ teams will “battle in the spirit of competition and camaraderie.”

Major Saudi Pro League transfers

Saudi Pro League teams have been among the most successful in the Asian club competition, with Al Hilal winning the title four times while Al Ittihad were champions in 2004 and 2005.

Iran's Persepolis, meanwhile, are one of the region's best supported clubs and played in front of a 100,000 crowd at the Azadi Stadium in the second leg of the 2018 Asian Champions League final, when they lost to Japan's Kashima Antlers.

Ronaldo, Benzema and Neymar will be looking to do a rare double of winning both the European and Asian Champions Leagues.

Portugal superstar Ronaldo is a five-time winner having won his first at Manchester United in 2008 before collecting four European Cups with Real Madrid.

French striker Benzema, 35, is also a five-time Uefa Champions League winner with Real Madrid, including three titles in a row from 2016 to 2018.

Neymar, the 31-year-old who joined Hilal for a reported fee of €96 million, was part of a star-studded Barcelona team that won the European Cup in 2015.

Updated: September 05, 2023, 6:28 AM