A Saudi football club refused to participate in an Asian Champions League game in Iran on Monday, allegedly over the statue of a former Iranian military commander that was placed off the pitch.
(Bloomberg) — A Saudi football club refused to participate in an Asian Champions League game in Iran on Monday, allegedly over the statue of a former Iranian military commander that was placed off the pitch.
The match between Iran’s Sepahan and Saudi Arabia’s Al-Ittihad was called off after the Saudi side reportedly demanded that the statue of slain Iranian General Qassem Soleimani be removed from the stadium, according to Iranian media reports.
Images from the Naghsh-e-Jahan Stadium in the central city of Isfahan showed a bronze bust of Soleimani near the tunnel area. Media footage showed Al-Ittihad players in a training session a day earlier with the bust visible on the pitchside.
Soleimani ran the overseas arm of Iran’s powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and was a blunt critic of the Saudi government and the kingdom’s ruling Al Saud family. He was killed in a US drone strike in Baghdad in 2020.
Al-Ittihad officials “made unprecedented, unconventional and unsportsmanlike requests in regard to the design and organization of the stadium,” Sepahan President Mohammadreza Saket said in a televised interview without giving more details. The club will file a complaint against Al-Ittihad, Saket said.
The incident could pose an early challenge to relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia who announced a deal in March to mend years of geopolitical rivalry. Riyadh severed ties with Tehran in 2016 after its diplomatic posts were attacked by protesters over the kingdom’s execution of a Shiite cleric.
The Asian Football Confederation said the game was cancelled “due to unanticipated and unforeseen circumstances.”
“The AFC reiterates its commitment towards ensuring the safety and security of the players, match officials, spectators, and all stakeholders involved,” the AFC said in a statement. “This matter will now be referred to the relevant committees.”
Monday’s clash would have marked only the second competitive football match in years between Iranian and Saudi clubs inside Iran. Last month, the Cristiano Ronaldo-led Al-Nassr played against Persepolis in Tehran’s Azadi Stadium, where Saudi Arabia’s Al-Hilal will also face Iran’s Nassaji on Tuesday.
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