Cristiano Ronaldo is causing hype in Iran. However, fans will not be allowed entry to his game in the Asian Champions League. This is just one facet of a very political game.
It has now been a year since Jina Mahsa Amini died. The exact circumstances remain unclear, as so many questions remain about Iran, whose brutal regime does not allow free reporting, which blocks social networks on the Internet, and which strictly monitors the supposedly God-given laws.
Amini probably violated this rule by not wearing her headscarf properly. According to eyewitness reports, the Kurdish woman was forcibly taken away and mistreated, fell into a coma and died on September 16, 2022, a few days before her 22nd birthday. Iranian authorities are spreading conflicting reports about the cause of death.
Her death triggered the largest wave of protests since the Islamic Republic was founded in 1979. “Zan, Zendegi, Azadi” (Persian), “Jin, Jîyan, Azadi” (Kurdish), “Woman, Life, Freedom” (English), is the well-known cry of the freedom fighters. It can still be heard sporadically in Iran today. But the protests have become fewer and quieter. On the first anniversary of Amini’s death, the regime once again tightened the precautions to use force to calm the people.
Instead of clips of protests, videos are flooding the Internet these days, which the regime might even like. Enthusiastic crowds welcome Cristiano Ronaldo, one of the two world football stars who they love so much in Iran. There are chaotic scenes.
The Portuguese Ronaldo came to the Iranian capital Tehran with his Saudi Arabian club al-Nassr to start the Champions League of the Asian Continental Association on Tuesday (September 19th, 2023) with a game against FC Persepolis. The venue alone is worth mentioning, as in previous years games between Iranian and Saudi Arabian teams were played on a neutral pitch.
The reason was the tense relations between the two states, which are already described as arch enemies.
In Saudi Arabia, the Islamic religious group Sunnis rule, and in Iran the Shiites rule. After a Shiite cleric was executed in Saudi Arabia in 2016, there were protests in front of the Saudi embassy in Tehran, which led to an escalation. Since then, diplomatic contacts have only existed in back rooms.
However, with the mediation of China, there was a relaxation in the spring of 2023 between the states that are involved in so-called proxy wars in Yemen and Syria, for example.
A lot has happened in the Middle East in the recent past. The relationship between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, host of the 2022 World Cup, was considered very tense for years, but has since improved.
Football is part of the geopolitical reorganization in Saudi Arabia. With a lot of money, the regime from Riyadh brought many prominent footballers into its country or even onto the payroll. Lionel Messi is an ambassador for the Saudi Arabian tourism industry, an industry that is becoming increasingly important due to the impending end of fossil fuels.
Game without fans
Ronaldo, the now 38-year-old other world star, has been playing for FC al-Nassr since the beginning of the year, one of four clubs that virtually belong to the regime through the Saudi Arabian sovereign wealth fund. Because of Ronaldo, thousands of Iranians came to the hotel and, because of the kind security forces in this case, also to the hotel where al-Nassr stayed in Tehran.
Nobody will come to the Azadi (Freedom) stadium, which according to official information holds a good 78,000 fans, but has supposedly accommodated more than 90,000 spectators for some games. The Asian association assigned Persepolis a “ghost game”. The reason was an incident from a group game in the Champions League in the 2021/22 season against the Indian club FC Goa. Persepolis’ social media department posted a post that referenced a Persian invasion of India in the mid-1800s. Now it’s the turn of “young Iranian footballers to conquer India again,” wrote Persepolis, quickly deleting the post after violent protests.
FC Goa demanded sanctions, the AFC imposed a penalty that is only now taking effect because Persepolis were not represented last season. Almost 90,000 men are denied entry to Ronaldo’s guest appearance. Women would most likely not have been allowed to come anyway. This is only allowed in very few games, even if the world association FIFA occasionally threatens to punish the Iranian association for discrimination.
When Iranian activists protested for freedom and women’s rights at the World Cup in Qatar, security forces also intervened violently. FIFA looked the other way. Its president, Gianni Infantino, had already said at his bizarre opening press conference in Doha that something might change in Iran if FIFA held a tournament there: “Then maybe things will get better.“
The fact that football improves social conditions has often been refuted. After Ronaldo’s departure, the Iranian regime will continue its brutal crackdown.