The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) has moved two Asian Champions League matches out of Iran citing security concerns in the country.
In a statement on Twitter, the AFC said on Wednesday that two home matches involving Iranian teams “have been moved to neutral venues because of ongoing security concerns and the decision of several governments to issue travel warnings to the Islamic Republic of Iran”.
The games, originally scheduled for Tuesday, will now be held on Saturday in the United Arab Emirates, the governing body for Asian football said. The decision came despite threats of a boycott from Iran, which has four teams playing in the continental club competition.
A spokesman for Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani slammed the AFC’s decision as a political move.
“This is an unsporty and unprofessional move,” he was quoted as saying by the official IRNA news agency.
There was no immediate comment from Iran’s football federation.
Tehran responded to the killing of Qassem Soleimani by striking US targets in Iraq on January 8. On the same day, the country’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps accidentally shot down a Ukrainian airliner, killing all 176 people on board.
The four Iranian clubs competing in the AFC Champions League – Persepolis, Sepahan, Esteghlal, and Shahr Khodro – told the AFC on Monday they would only turn up for the games if they were allowed to host their games in Iran, according to IRNA.
When news of the AFC decision initially became public, Iran’s Sport and Youth Minister, Masoud Soltanifar, told reporters the move was “totally political and unathletic” based on “false pretexts of lack of security and safety of aerial routes to Iran”, according to the Islamic Republic News Agency.
The AFC’s move has prompted anger in Iran. A young football fan in Tehran, Hojat Vafaee, described the decision as a “pure political decision taken under the pressure of some Arab countries”.
He called on FIFA, football’s world governing body, to intervene and defend Iran’s rights, saying its president, Gianni Infantino “was here in Tehran last year and he has seen the spectacular and safe atmosphere of our stadiums”.
Ali, a 20-year-old supporter of Sepahan, a major sport club from Esfahan in central Iran, also slammed the decision.
“The AFC always says Iran has the best and greatest football fans in Asia and take so much credit for itself. But because of politics, they close their eyes on the feeling of millions of Iranian football fans,” he told Al Jazeera. “We’ve always been told that politics should be kept out of sports, but yet we see it happening by AFC itself.”
Many took to social media in protest, using hashtags including “Shame_On_AFC”, “ACLneedIranianfans” and “AFC_Iran_Is_Safe”. Many criticised the decision on AFC’s Instagram account.
One Iranian football fan wrote on Twitter: “I don’t know if I should be happy or sad, national pride or global backwardness, pity.”
Some Iranian fans, however, said the AFC’s decision did not affect them.
Nooshin, a female football fan in the northern city of Noshahr, said the move held no weight for her as Iranian women are largely barred from attending football matches.
She added: “Well, we (Iran) are talking about revenge and war all the time. The US is also threatening us. We don’t have aerial safety now.”