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Saudi football club refuses to play in Iran due to Qassem Soleimani statue

The match was scheduled to take place in Isfahan, Iran, where an estimated 60,000 spectators were set to watch the game
A picture obtained by AFP from the Iranian news agency Tasnim on 2 October 2023 shows a bust of Qassem Soleimani on the pitch at Naghsh-e Jahan Stadium in Iran (AFP)

A football match in Iran featuring Saudi Arabia's Al-Ittihad Club playing against Iran's Sepahan was halted on Monday when the Saudi team refused to participate due to a statue in the stadium commemorating the late Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commander Qassem Soleimani.

Soleimani was assassinated near Baghdad airport by a US drone attack in January 2020 under the administration of former President Donald Trump. 

According to Saudi Arabia’s Al-Ekhbariya TV channel, Al-Ittihad decided against continuing the match as the Iranian side declined to take down the statue.

The game was scheduled to take place at Naghsh-e Jahan Stadium in the central city of Isfahan, Iran, where an estimated 60,000 spectators gathered to witness the Asian Champions League face-off between Sepahan and Al-Ittihad.

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Videos shared on social media from within the stadium depicted Sepahan supporters voicing their objections to the Soleimani statue, with chants like “We don’t want politics in football” and “Remove the statue”.

The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) attributed the game's cancellation to "unanticipated and unforeseen circumstances”.

In a released statement, the AFC emphasised its dedication to the safety and security of players, officials, and fans.

“This matter will now be referred to the relevant committees.”

In a statement relayed by Iranian state media, Sepahan expressed its plan to file a complaint with the AFC over Al-Ittihad's decision not to partake in the match. The reasoning behind the Saudi team's refusal was not specified in the statement.

This year's Asian Champions League represents the first occasion since 2016 that Saudi Arabian and Iranian clubs have received authorisation to engage in home and away matches against each other.

In 2016, a faction of Iranian militiamen, known as the Basij and affiliated with the IRGC, assaulted the Saudi embassy in Tehran.

The two countries reestablished diplomatic ties in March.

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