Saudi-Iran club match axed amid row over slain commander’s statue

Isfahan, Iran (AFP): A football match between Saudi and Iranian teams was cancelled on Monday night amid a dust-up over a statue of slain Revolutionary Guards commander Qasem Soleimani, a club source told AFP.

The match between Sepahan FC and Al Ittihad FC set to take place in the Iranian city of Isfahan “has been cancelled due to unanticipated and unforeseen circumstances”, the AFC Champions League said in a statement, without elaborating.

However an official with Saudi side Al Ittihad said a dispute arose after club administrators objected to a bust of Soleimani, who was killed by a US drone strike in 2020.

“The club administrators found a bust of Qasem Soleimani in the walkway to the pitch. It’s a pure football game and (the bust’s) presence is totally irrelevant,” the official said.

“We asked them to remove it before going to the pre-game warm-up and they didn’t remove it. The team went back to the lockers.”

The official said the two sides then met with AFC representatives to determine if the match would be rescheduled.

Soleimani commanded the foreign operations arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and remains a revered figure in Iran following his 2020 assassination.

The Iranian news agency ISNA reported that Monday’s match had been cancelled “by the decision of the referee”, without giving a reason.

Mohammed Reza Saket, general manager of Sepahan, told Iranian state television that his side would “immediately complain to the AFC” about the incident.

“The request of the Ittihad team was outside of sports customs and against the usual principles,” he said.

The stadium in Isfahan “has hosted dozens of international games with the same appearance,” he added.

“The Ittihad team had trained yesterday with the same conditions and the existing design of the stadium and they also thanked the Sepahan team.”

The local news agency Tasnim said the statue of Soleimani was “part of” the stadium and had no connection to the match.

“Given that situation, what happened tonight with the Saudi team leaving the field was just (them) making excuses,” it said.

– Sports diplomacy –

The Saudi state-affiliated Al-Ekhbariya channel reported on Monday night that Ittihad had left Iran for Saudi Arabia.

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 long-time rivals agree to restore diplomatic relations and reopen their respective embassies following a seven-year rupture.

The official news agency IRNA shared footage on Monday of the newly appointed Saudi ambassador arriving at the stadium in Isfahan ahead of the match.

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.

The Portugese star received a rapturous welcome, with large crowds lining the streets and shouting, “Ronaldo! Ronaldo!”

Neymar’s Saudi club Al Hilal was scheduled to play on Tuesday against Iranian side Nassaji Mazandaran.

There was no immediate word on Monday as to whether the match would go ahead.