Cristiano Ronaldo’s debut in the AFC Champions League sees him lead Al Nassr to Tehran where they take on two-time finalists Persepolis at the Azadi Stadium in the Iranian capital.
The Saudi side’s arrival, led by Ronaldo and Sadio Mane, sparked an unprecedented wave of welcoming celebrations as thousands of Iranians lined the streets to catch a glimpse of the five-time Ballon d’Or winner when the team bus departed Imam Khomeini International Airport. Meanwhile, billboards welcoming Al Nassr players in Arabic, Farsi and English hung in the streets of Tehran.
The visit is the first for a Saudi club to Iran since 2016, when the two countries severed their diplomatic ties, with teams having to play their AFC Champions League games on neutral grounds from the UAE to Oman to Qatar in recent years.
The most recent encounter between the two teams took place at Jassim bin Hamad Stadium in Doha in the semi-finals of the 2020 edition. A 1-1 draw saw the game go to a penalty shoot-out in which Persepolis emerged winners to advance to their second final in three years. They would go on to lose against Korean side Ulsan Hyundai, having also lost to Japan’s Kashima Antlers in the 2018 final.
This season, Ronaldo and company have already navigated a tricky play-off tie against Shabab Al Ahli from Dubai, coming from 2-1 down with two minutes to go to turn it around thanks to goals from Sultan Al Ghannam, Anderson Talisca and Marcelo Brozovic to reach the competition proper.
Alongside Persepolis, Al Nassr’s challenging group includes Qatari powerhouse Al Duhail, who had reached the semi-finals of last year’s edition under the guidance of head coach Hernan Crespo and have since bolstered their squad with the signing of Brazilian playmaker Philippe Coutinho on loan from Aston Villa. Rounding-off Group E are Tajikistan side Istiklol FC, who have established themselves as AFC Champions League perennials in recent years.
When the draw for the group stage was made, excitement was in the air about the prospect of Ronaldo making his debut in Asia’s top club competition in front of 100,000 fans, the capacity of Azadi Stadium, one of the continent’s most famous football grounds.
However, Iranian hopes of seeing one of the game’s greats up close were dashed as the AFC upheld a one-match ban on Persepolis fans following offensive posts by the club’s official social media account ahead of their encounter with FC Goa back in 2021. To the dismay of the home supporters, that one match turned out to be the one where the visiting team boasted the biggest star to ever grace Asian football pitches in modern times.
For Al Nassr, the absence of fans represents a relief, with the club having lost to Persepolis in front of 100,000 fans in the 2015 AFC Champions League group stage. Current Porto star Mehdi Taremi scored Persepolis’s only goal on the night, with Al Nassr having won the reverse fixture in Riyadh 3-0.
Al Nassr have been in red-hot form in the Saudi Pro League this season, bouncing back from two consecutive defeats in their first two matches to win four on the trot, bagging an incredible 17 goals in the process and conceding only two. Ronaldo has been at the heart of their scoring spree, finding the back of the net in each of the four games to sit top of the league's scoring charts with seven goals, while Mane has also scored in each of the four matches.
Despite being one of Saudi Arabia’s biggest clubs, Al Nassr have never won the AFC Champions League, unlike their great rivals Al Hilal, who boast a record four titles and Al Ittihad, who have two continental titles to their name. Meanwhile, Al Nassr’s greatest continental achievement came in 1997-98 when they lifted the now defunct Asian Cup Winners' Cup thanks to a goal from Bulgarian legend Hristo Stoichkov in the final.
A win in Tehran could prove a statement of intent from the Riyadh-based team, but, regardless of the result, the warm reception the team received and the frenzy surrounding their star man is an indication not just of the thaw in relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran, but also of the influence and growing popularity of Saudi clubs across Asia on the back of their record-breaking transfers business in recent months.