‘Historic move’: Saudi football clubs to play in Iran as travel ban lifted

Saudi Pro League clubs will play their Champions League games in Iran after both countries agreed to resume home-and-away matches, the Asian Football Confederation said.

ronaldo al nassr
Cristiano Ronaldo's Al Nassr will kick off their Asian Champions League campaign in Tehran's Azadi Stadium on September 19 against Persepolis [File: Ahmed Yosri/Reuters]

Saudi Arabia and Iran have reached a “groundbreaking” deal to resume home-and-away football matches between club sides after seven years of competing in neutral venues, the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) has said.

The move by the two countries’ football federations would contribute to “fostering closer ties between their respective footballing communities, allowing clubs to host matches on their home turf and visiting the respective away stadiums, creating a more engaging and exciting experience for the fans and players alike”, the AFC said in a statement on Monday.

Saudi Pro League clubs will travel to Iran to feature in the Asian Champions League games.

Cristiano Ronaldo’s Al Nassr will kick off their Asian Champions League campaign in Tehran’s Azadi Stadium on September 19 against Persepolis while Al Hilal and Al Ittihad will also travel to Iran during the group phase.

Matches had been played on neutral territory since 2016 because strained diplomatic ties between the two countries meant Saudi nationals were not permitted to travel to Iran.

The AFC said it “welcomes the historic move” as it reflects the commitment of Saudi Arabia and Iran “towards fostering closer ties between their respective footballing communities”.

In addition to Al Nassr’s visit to Tehran in Group E later this month, Al Hilal, who recently signed Brazil winger Neymar from Paris Saint-Germain, are scheduled to travel to Tehran to take on Nassaji Mazandaran in Group D on October 3.

Saudi champions Al Ittihad, featuring ex-Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema, have been drawn to face Isfahan-based Sepahan in Group C, with the sides due to meet in Iran on October 2.

Move follows diplomatic progress

Saudi Arabia and Iran severed ties in 2016 after Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran were attacked during protests over Riyadh’s execution of Shia figure Nimr al-Nimr.

The AFC then decided that football matches between the two countries would take place on neutral ground, an arrangement it described at the time as “most unfortunate”.

In March, a China-brokered deal saw the longtime rivals agree to restore diplomatic relations and reopen their respective embassies.

Last month, Iran’s top diplomat preached unity and dialogue during his first visit to Saudi Arabia since the surprise rapprochement was announced, saying bilateral ties were “progressing in the right direction”.

Saudi Pro League teams have been among the most successful in the Asian club competition, with Al Hilal winning the title four times while Al Ittihad were champions in 2004 and 2005.

Meanwhile, Iran’s Persepolis are one of the region’s best-supported clubs and played in front of a 100,000 crowd at the Azadi Stadium in the second leg of the 2018 Asian Champions League final, when they lost to Japan’s Kashima Antlers.

The AFC Champions League season is due to start on September 18 with a group phase. It will run until December 13 and knockout rounds will start on February 12, with the two-legged final scheduled for May 11 and 18.

Source: News Agencies