Saudi-Iran Asian Champions League game cancelled in row over Soleimani bust

Saudi Arabia’s Al Ittihad refuses to leave locker room for game against Iran’s Sepahan over statue of slain Iranian general in the stadium.

a bust of slain Revolutionary Guards commander Qasem Soleimani
The bust of slain Revolutionary Guards commander Qasem Soleimani on the pitch at the Naghsh-e-Jahan Stadium in Isfahan during the AFC Champions League Group C football match between Iran's Sepahan and Saudi Arabia's Al-Ittihad. [Morteza Salehi/Tasnim via AFP]

A football match between Saudi and Iranian teams in the Asian Champions League has been called off due to the presence of a statue of former Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani at the entrance of the field.

A clash scheduled for Monday between Saudi’s Al Ittihad and Iran’s Sepahan was postponed after the Saudi team refused to leave the dressing room at the Naghsh-e Jahan Stadium in the Iranian city of Isfahan.

“The AFC reiterates its commitment towards ensuring the safety and security of the players, match officials, spectators, and all stakeholders involved,” the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) said in a statement. “This matter will now be referred to the relevant committees.”

Soleimani – who commanded the foreign operations arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, its specialised Quds Force – played a central role in directing Iran’s activities across the Middle East for several decades before being assassinated by a US air strike in January 2020.

Sometimes known as the “shadow commander”, he guided Iranian efforts to influence events across the region, overseeing activities in countries such as Lebanon, Iraq and Syria. He is viewed as a hero by the Iranian government, but seen as a key architect of Iranian policy by the Saudis.

Photographs on social media showed a bust of Soleimani placed at the entrance of the football pitch, prominently displayed before players who would have exited the tunnel onto the field.

While Iran and Saudi Arabia have made efforts to ease tensions in recent months, relations remain highly strained.

The dispute comes one month after Saudi Arabia and Iran announced a “groundbreaking” deal to resume home-and-away football matches between club sides after seven years of competing in neutral venues.

That agreement was the latest sign of rapprochement stemming from a surprise China-brokered deal announced in March that saw the longtime rivals agree to restore diplomatic relations and reopen their respective embassies following a seven-year rupture.

Cristiano Ronaldo’s Saudi club Al Nassr played a match in Tehran on September 19, the first time a Saudi club had played in Iran since 2016.

Previous matches between clubs from Iran and Saudi Arabia had been played in neutral territories due to concerns over security.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies