A club source informed AFP that a football match that was scheduled to take place between Saudi and Iranian teams on Monday night was called off because of a dispute with a monument of the late Revolutionary Guards leader Qasem Soleimani.
According to a statement released by the AFC Champions League, the match between Sepahan FC and Al Ittihad FC that was scheduled to take place in the city of Isfahan in Iran “has been cancelled due to unanticipated and unforeseen circumstances.” The statement did not provide any more details.
However, an official with the Saudi side Al Ittihad said that a conflict erupted when club management objected to a bust of Soleimani, who was killed by a drone attack carried out by the United States in the year 2020.
A bust of the late Revolutionary Guards commander Qasem Soleimani was placed on the pitch at the Naghsh-e-Jahan Stadium in Isfahan on October 2, 2023, during the AFC Champions League Group C football match between Iran’s Sepahan and Saudi Arabia’s Al-Ittihad. The image was obtained by AFP from the Iranian news agency Tasnim. Photo by the AFP.
A bust of Qasem Soleimani was discovered by the management of the club in the pathway leading to the playing field. “This is a straightforward football game, and the presence of (the bust) is completely unimportant,” the official said.
“We requested that they take it off before to coming to the pre-game warm-up, but they did not take it off. The players dispersed to their respective changing rooms.
After then, according to the official, both teams met with officials from the AFC to discuss whether or not the match would be postponed.
Following his killing in 2020, Soleimani continues to be a beloved figure in Iran. He led the branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps that was responsible for overseas operations.
The Iranian news agency ISNA stated that the match scheduled for Monday had been called off “by the decision of the referee,” but did not specify the cause for the cancellation.
In an interview with Iranian state television, Mohammed Reza Saket, the general manager of Sepahan, said that his team will “immediately complain to the AFC” about the event.
“The request of the Ittihad team was outside of sports customs and against the usual principles,” he stated. “[T]hese are not the kinds of things that happen in sports.”
In addition, he said that the stadium in Isfahan “has hosted dozens of international games with the same appearance.”
“The Ittihad team trained yesterday with the same conditions and the existing design of the stadium, and they also thanked the Sepahan team.”
According to the regional news source Tasnim, the monument of Soleimani was “part of” the stadium and had nothing to do with the game.
“Given that situation, what happened tonight with the Saudi team leaving the pitch was just (them) making excuses,” it read. “Given that situation.”
The diplomatic use of sports
It was announced on Monday night by the Al-Ekhbariya station, which is associated with the Saudi state, that Ittihad had travelled from Iran to Saudi Arabia.
This disagreement arises one month after Saudi Arabia and Iran signed a “groundbreaking” accord to restart home-and-away football matches between club teams after playing at neutral stadiums for the previous seven years.
This accord was the most recent show of reconciliation after an unexpected pact mediated by China and revealed in March. Under the terms of that deal, the long-time adversaries agreed to reestablish diplomatic ties and reopen their respective embassies after a rift of seven years had existed between them.
On Monday, the government-run news agency IRNA published a video showing the freshly appointed Saudi ambassador making his way to the stadium in Isfahan in advance of the game.
On September 19, the Saudi team Al Nassr, for whom Cristiano Ronaldo plays, travelled to Tehran to take part in a match. This was the first time a Saudi club has competed in Iran since 2016.
Large crowds lined the streets in anticipation of the arrival of the Portuguese superstar, chanting “Ronaldo! Ronaldo!” as they cheered for him.
On Tuesday, the match between Neymar’s Saudi team Al Hilal and the Iranian side Nassaji Mazandaran was set to take place.
On Monday, there was no immediate news as to whether or not the match would go forward as scheduled.