Creating new perspectives since 2009

Saudi team refuses to play in Iran due to statue of Qasem Soleimani

The football stars of Saudi team Al-Ittihad had their first taste of Middle Eastern geopolitics after they were ordered not to play in an Asian Champions League match in Iran over a bust of Qasem Soleimani, the slain leader of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. The Saudi team jumped straight onto a plane after Iranian officials refused to move the bust from the pitch while disappointed fans from Iran's Sepahan chanted in opposition to Soleimani and to 'keep politics out of football'.

October 2, 2023 at 7:45 pm

Al-Ittihad’s Asian Champions League match with Iran’s Sepahan was called off on Monday after the Saudi team refused to leave their dressing-room due to a statue of an assassinated Iranian General being placed at the entrance to the pitch, Reuters reports.

The game was postponed by officials at the Naghsh-e Jahan Stadium in Isfahan, where around 60,000 fans had turned out to see Sepahan take on an Al-Ittihad starting line-up that was due to include former Premier League stars, Ngolo Kante and Fabinho.

The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) said the game had been “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 body said in a statement.

This matter will now be referred to the relevant committees

Qasem Soleimani, a prominent General in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, was killed near Baghdad Airport in a United States drone strike in January 2020 and is viewed as a martyr by the country’s ruling regime.

Photographs from the stadium published on social media showed a bust of Soleimani had been placed at the entrance to the pitch and would have been in full view of the players as they exited the tunnel.

Relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia have long been strained and this year’s Asian Champions League is the first since 2016 in which clubs from both nations have been permitted to play one another home and away.

Matches between clubs from the two nations were previously played on neutral territory due to security concerns.

Cristiano Ronaldo led his Al-Nassr side to Tehran two weeks ago to face Persepolis at the Azadi Stadium, although that game was played in an empty stadium due to a one-game spectator ban given to the Iranian club by the AFC due to fan behaviour.

READ: How Cristiano Ronaldo brought football-crazy Iran to a standstill