Ronaldo during the soccer match in Tehran, September 19, 2023

Football, Politics, And A Few Other Things In Tehran And New York

Wednesday, 09/20/2023
Behrouz Turani

Behrouz Turani is the author of Iranian Media, A Non-Linear History. He has been advising governments on both sides of the Atlantic during the past three decades as a senior Iran expert. His career as a journalist includes working with internationally renowned media organizations including the BBC. He has also been teaching courses on media studies.

The Iranian regime had some luck on its side as a series of coincidences reduced the likelihood of larger protests on the anniversary of Mahsa Amini last weekend.

The scary Mahsa anniversary coincided with the 4th day of a long weekend many Iranians spent either at the Caspian seaside, or at other scenic places around Iran as the last opportunity for families to have a good time before the schools re-open on September 23.

Some social media users argued that activists and foreign-based opposition figures could have chosen and advertised another date closer to the actual anniversary. Some said that a September 23 event could have created havoc as the entire country usually turns into a big traffic jam.

Furthermore, the anniversary coincided with an embarrassing setback for Iran's national wrestling team during an international championship competition in Bulgaria. The Iranian team, historically one of the world's best since the 1950s, suffered a blow when its captain, Hassan Yazdani, lost to US Champion David Taylor. The outcome was filled with anger and tears within the Iranian team's camp.

Interestingly, in Iran, people celebrated the defeat. It was evident that they had little affection for Yazdani and his coach, both of whom were regime insiders who never supported the 2022 protests. The Islamic Republic undoubtedly appreciated the distraction.

A demonstrator holds a placard with the image of Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi as Iranian Americans protest near the United Nations headquarters during Raisi's visit to New York City, September 19, 2023.

On Monday, a bigger distraction came from Saudi Arabia. Al-Nassr Football Club arrived in Iran for the Asian Football Clubs (AFC) Champions League competitions to face Iran's hugely popular leading football team Persepolis.

Thousands of Iranians were running around to follow the Saudi team and its internationally acclaimed star Cristiano Ronaldo across Tehran and almost occupied his hotel on the slopes of Mount Alborz. The hotel is located on top of a hill and fans climbed rocks to reach the hotel before the bus could drive around the winding road around the hill to make it to the top.

People came as far away as Isfahan. An elderly lady of Isfahan told reporters she travelled the long distance only to be able to judge Ronaldo's character, otherwise she knew very well that he was a good player. Her daughter told reporters what a staunch supporter her mother was.

A young boy was filmed crying outside the hotel because the crowed did not allow him to get as close to Ronaldo as he wished. Later, thanks to Al-Nassr's avid social media team, the boy and his grandfather were taken to Ronaldo's room. The athlete signed the jersey the boy was wearing as well as a new jersey. The boy is now thousands of dollars richer. His grandfather spent millions of rials to get a room for himself and his grandson at the same hotel with the Al-Nassr team.

A video surfaced on social media showing Ronaldo hugging a disabled woman who took the trouble to go and see him. A good publicity stunt, and again another victory for Al-Nassr, and its social media team.

Again, the distraction was a blessing for the Islamic Republic. Many Iranians lived in a parallel world for two days that did not care about insignificant news including the release of US hostages, the freeing of Iran's blocked assets, President Ebrahim Raisi's visit to New York where none of his entourage had an umbrella in the rainy afternoon and they had to borrow one for Raisi while tens of aides walked wet and tired under the afternoon shower.

The worst embarrassment, however, came at the airport, where Persepolis's manager presented two silk carpets to Ronaldo as gifts. The manager was harshly criticized by the press for the event as he has been hiding from the team members for weeks as he was unable to pay them. Later, he explained that the team had not paid for the carpets and that they were a gift from a major carpet seller. But no one in Iran believes such comments by officials.

The match on Tuesday, evening, if anyone is interested, ended two-nil for Saudi Arabia's Al-Nassr. Both goals were scored by Saudi players, not Ronaldo.

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