Iranians have found little reason to be thankful lately, with the economy in trouble and the country under international sanctions. This helps explain the rush of excitement surrounding the arrival of one of world football’s greatest stars as Cristiano Ronaldo prepares to make his debut on Iranian soil.

A private plane carrying Portugal’s five-time World Player of the Year and his teammates from Saudi Arabia’s Al-Nasser FC landed in Tehran on Monday ahead of their AFC Champions League match against Iran’s Persepolis on Tuesday night.

Ronaldo, 38, joined Al Nasr in December for a reported $200 million per year after a stellar career at Manchester United, Real Madrid and the Portuguese national team. He has more than 30 major trophies and is world football’s men’s international goals record holder – a title he took from Iranian player Ali Daei in 2021.

Even opposing fans take notice when they see a player known for his goal-scoring prowess, free-kicks and trademark twirling celebrations in the air against their favorite team. But for the Islamic Republic’s predominantly young population, whose thirst for joy and entertainment remains unsatisfied, expectations are even greater.

“Ronaldo is one of the most important people in the world and the most followed person on Instagram,” said Pejman Raahbar, editor-in-chief of the Varzesh 3 sports website. “In Iran, major international sports teams or well-known There are very few visits from football players, which is why this is causing so much excitement.”

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Football is very popular in Iran, and the national team is a regular at the FIFA World Cup. Ronaldo scored when Portugal defeated Iran in the 2006 World Cup in Germany.

Persepolis is Iran’s most successful team with a large and passionate fan base. But they will miss Tuesday’s match, which will be played behind closed doors at the 100,000-seat Azadi Stadium due to a ban on licensing regulations by the Asian Football Confederation (AFC).

The supporter ban is hugely disappointing, but fans are still eagerly anticipating the Portuguese star’s arrival. “I always played Ronaldo in the FIFA video games,” said Rayan, 27. “When I was younger I used to send him private messages hoping we could become friends and he would buy me an island,” he joked.

Iranians have developed a culture of humor to deal with their social dilemmas, addressing even the most sensitive topics with levity and jokes that quickly go viral. Ronaldo’s arrival is no exception.

News is circulating on social media about what hairstyle Ronaldo will wear and whether his partner Georgina will have to go through the women’s gate at the airport or be barred from sharing a room because they are not officially married.

Ronaldo will spend approximately 36 hours in Tehran, with an entire floor of Tehran’s Espinas Palace Hotel allocated to his Saudi team and a suite reserved for their star player. Iranian fans, some bearing Ronaldo’s CR7 branding on their jerseys, gathered at Imam Khomeini Airport on Monday as the team’s plane landed, and larger crowds gathered outside luxury hotels hoping to catch a glimpse of their idol. .

Ghazal, 25, lamented the intense excitement before the game. “I’m a Persepolis fan but I’ve also always admired Ronaldo. I’m torn now between who to support.”

Nasr’s visit is the first visit by a Saudi club to Iran in seven years. The two counties have been bitter regional rivals, although a surprise rapprochement under Chinese auspices in March helped defuse tensions.

Ronaldo is one of Saudi Arabia’s crown jewels in promoting the world’s most popular sport. Its major clubs are spending more on players this summer than almost every major league in the heartland of European football.

According to transfermarkt.co.uk, Saudi clubs spent a net €891 million in the latest transfer window, underscoring the country’s ambition to become a world football force. Brazil’s Neymar, France’s Karim Benzema and Senegal’s Sadio Mane are among the new faces who have signed big-money contracts to play in the Saudi Professional League this season.

Premier League side Newcastle United are also returning to the lucrative Champions League after being bought by a consortium including the Saudi Public Investment Fund. The AFC Championship is the region’s equivalent of Europe’s most prestigious tournament.

Ronaldo’s visit was not without controversy. When Iran’s tourism minister joked that players would have to find an alternative to messaging their 605 million followers on Instagram, the country’s former communications minister said it was a reminder that authorities should consider easing access to social media for Iranians.

Instagram remains blocked in the Islamic Republic, as well as Telegram, WhatsApp and many other websites and apps. However, in true Iranian style, Ronaldo’s Instagram feed this week has been filled with advice on how to navigate the country, including tips in Farsi on which private networks are best for circumventing the rules.

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