KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar, Karim Benzema and their Saudi Arabian soccer clubs will play in Iran for Asian Champions League games this season because of improved relations between the countries.
The Asian Football Confederation on Monday praised “a groundbreaking agreement” between the Saudi and Iranian soccer federations that lets their teams host each other in home and away games instead of seeking neutral ground.
Al Nassr, Ronaldo's team, is scheduled to play Persepolis in Tehran on Sept. 19. The return game on Nov. 27 will be played in Riyadh.
The 2015 Asian Champions League edition was the last time Saudi and Iranian teams faced each other on home turf in the group stage or knockout rounds.
Long-standing diplomat tensions between the two countries are easing and Iran’s foreign minister, Hossein Amirabdollahian, went to Saudi Arabia last month for the first such visit in eight years.
Since the AFC ruling on using neutral venues took effect in 2016, Saudi and Iranian clubs drawn together in the Champions League used stadiums in Dubai and Doha. Iranian teams did play in Saudi cities during the COVID-19 pandemic when single venues were used for games between teams from multiple countries under strict health rules.
The Asian Champions League draw was held on Aug. 24 and created Iran-Saudi matches in three of the five groups in the western part of the continent. Five more four-team groups play in the east region.
Al Hilal, Neymar's team, is scheduled to play in Iran against Nassaji Mazandaran on Oct. 2. Al Ittihad, Benzema’s team, is scheduled to face Sepahan on the same day.
The return games in Saudi Arabia are set for Dec. 12.
“Passionate fans across Saudi Arabia, Iran and the whole of Asia can now look forward to a thrilling new chapter in club and national team football,” the AFC said, adding the countries’ teams will “battle in the spirit of competition and camaraderie.”
At the men’s national team level, Saudi Arabia and Iran last faced each other in 2012.
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