Reaction to Ronaldo’s visit shows Iranians long for normality
The unwritten agreement between the US and Iran on the swapping of prisoners in return for the unfreezing of billions of dollars of Iranian assets came into force last week. However, in the same week, another significant event took place in Iran, causing huge uproar. The famous Portuguese footballer, Cristiano Ronaldo, who plays in the Saudi Pro League for Al-Nassr FC, arrived in Tehran along with his teammates for an AFC Champions League match against Persepolis.
It is true that, when a celebrity visits a nation, many of their fans try to see them and may even compete with one another to get a selfie. But compared to other parts of the world, the situation in Iran is quite different. The road leading to Azadi Stadium and the area surrounding it were improved upon the orders of Iranian sports and municipal officials. Placards welcoming the visiting team were also put up all over the city in various languages. The authorities rushed to make renovations to the stadium that hosted the game, as it was in a very poor state until very recently.
Iranian fans flocked from various provinces, with many attempting to break into the hotel in which the visiting team was staying. Others subverted the green zone in the hotel, gathered in front of the building for several hours, chanted slogans and reserved dozens of rooms in the hotel in the hope of getting into close contact with the visiting players.
Al-Nassr’s visit to Tehran also grabbed the attention of Iranian officials. Minister of Cultural Heritage and Tourism Ezzatollah Zarghami mocked the minister of communications, saying that Ronaldo should download Iranian apps to his phone to bypass the blockage of websites by the Iranian government. Zarghami continued that Ronaldo should also inform his family and friends outside Iran to download the apps so that they could easily contact him.
Iranian fans flocked from all over, with many attempting to break into the hotel in which the visiting team was staying
Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami
Iranian media outlets discussed the event from different angles. Donya-e-Eqtesad newspaper considered the event to be “a national issue” that posed a test for the authorities. Khorasan newspaper admitted that the Portuguese footballer’s visit to Tehran — even if it was for less than two days — created chaos not only in the capital but all round the country. It added that the presence of players such as Ronaldo in Saudi Arabia’s football league rather than Iran’s deepened the remorse in the hearts of Iranian football fans.
Jahan-e Sanat newspaper expressed its regret at Iranian officials going out of their way to ensure the Al-Nassr players faced no difficulties during their stay, such as ensuring their SIM cards were not subjected to internet restrictions. “All that we hope is that, besides the officials’ concern with the visiting footballers communicating with their families during the few days they resided in Iran, they should also direct some attention to the Iranian people who are suffering at every moment from restrictions and difficulties, not only in conducting communications, but also in their work and meeting their everyday needs.”
The paper also denounced officials’ exaggerated interest in the event, which lasted just 36 hours, while ignoring the Iranian people. “If blocking the internet is a disgrace, and if it’s necessary to decorate Iran, renovate the Azadi Stadium and embellish the airport and improve the attitude of officials, why don’t you resolve these problems for us, the Iranians? Ronaldo will come to play a football game and then leave. But we are living here eternally in the land of our forefathers. Don’t we deserve this respect and hard work on the part of the officials to improve the situation? If we aren’t as valuable as Ronaldo, we are at least humans,” it noted.
Azari Jahromi, a former minister of communications, wrote on his Instagram account: “Instead of showing concern for the tools of bypassing internet blockage for the famous footballers during their stay in Iran, I call on officials to pay attention to the troubles the Iranian people face as they attempt to get access to social media platforms.”
The Portuguese footballer’s visit to Tehran created chaos not only in the capital but all round the country
Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami
Setar-e Sobh newspaper, meanwhile, blasted the lack of a comprehensive plan with regard to the reception of internationally famous figures, which created chaos during the reception of the Saudi team. It reported: “It should be admitted that sanctions, isolation from the world and backwardness have made us wonder (how to behave) when a global footballer arrives in Iran, thus acting in a way that doesn’t fit the standing of the Iranian people … The photos that are circulating are a disgrace and source of shame for Iranians. The behavior of some fans … shows that Iran is still a third world country — not only on the global stage but also at the local level.”
However, the Salam-e No website refused to blame the Iranian fans, instead stating that the blame should be on government officials and those of the Persepolis club. It added that, had a better plan been developed, such chaos would never have unfolded.
In reality, the events that took place surrounding the visit do not point to Iranian football fans being hooligans, but rather they expose the disorganization and lack of planning on the part of the officials. More importantly, these events expose the Iranians’ aching for a normal life, away from the regime’s ideology, militarization and squandering of the country’s resources on extraterritorial projects; not to mention the deprivation experienced by the Iranian people at various levels, including the hosting of world-famous footballers, which the country had not experienced for decades.
The spike in immigration in recent years confirms our argument that the Iranians are longing for a normal life. Additionally, a recent report revealed that the number of Iranians living in misery has risen to more than 60 percent.
In the same vein, Fayad Zahed, a sociology researcher, said that Iranian society is not an international society. He said: “We rarely witness global events in the country. They have set up a fence around Iran with regard to these issues. We don’t see grand musical concerts being held, or famous actors visiting the country or famous football teams at the club or country levels. This has cultivated a sense of reclusion as well as social and international isolation.”
To conclude, it should be said that the AFC’s decision that the game be played without fans — with some accusing the Iranian football federation of ensuring Iranian fans did not attend the game, whether deliberately or by mistake — was a godsend for the authorities. The latter feared that Iranian fans would cheer on Al-Nassr and perhaps celebrate its victory — as they did when the US national team beat Iran at the 2022 FIFA World Cup. That situation would have been deeply awkward for the regime, given its inability to organize or control the situation, while also preventing women from entering stadiums generally.
- Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami is the founder and president of the International Institute for Iranian Studies (Rasanah). Twitter: @mohalsulami