Saudi-Iranian football match in Iran cancelled over Qassem Soleimani statue
Soleimani was killed in a US airstrike in 2020. His legacy is marked by controversy, with the Iranian regime hailing him as a hero while facing a less favorable perception from those outside the Iranian regime.
A football match in Iran between Saudi Arabia’s Al Ittihad and Iran’s Sepahan was abruptly called off on Monday after the Saudi team refused to take part due to the presence of a statue of slain Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commander Qassem Soleimani in the stadium.
The match was set to be held at Naghsh-e Jahan Stadium in Iran’s central city of Isfahan where approximately 60,000 fans gathered to watch the Asian Champions League clash between Sepahan and Al Ittihad.
Photos from the stadium shared on social media showed a bust of Soleimani positioned at the entrance to the pitch which would have been clearly visible to players as they made their way onto the field.
Al Ittihad chose not to proceed with the match due to the Iranian side’s refusal to remove political statues and banners, despite requests from match officials, Saudi Arabia’s al-Ekhbariya TV channel reported.
NEW -- #Saudi football team @ittihad were meant to play Isfahan in #Iran tonight -- but organizers placed a bust of Qassem #Soleimani at the entrance, where the players would run out onto the pitch.— Charles Lister (@Charles_Lister) October 2, 2023
Ittihad have left the stadium in protest, refusing to play. pic.twitter.com/tgqUAaqDbO
Sepahan said in a statement carried by Iranian state media that it intends to file a complaint with the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) regarding Al Ittihad’s refusal to participate in the match. The statement did not say why the Saudi team refused to play.
The AFC cited “unanticipated and unforeseen circumstances” as the reason for the game’s cancellation.
“The AFC reiterates its commitment towards ensuring the safety and security of the players, match officials, spectators, and all stakeholders involved,” it said in a statement.
“This matter will now be referred to the relevant committees.”
Footage circulated on social media from inside the stadium showed some Sepahan fans protesting the presence of the Soleimani statue, chanting slogans such as “We don’t want politics in football” and “Remove the statue.”
The people of #Iran are in the stands are chanting "we don't want to politicize football" after the Islamic Republic tried to put a statue of Soleimani on the field prompting Al-Ittihad to refuse to play. https://t.co/vZgqnsPHAc— Jason Brodsky (@JasonMBrodsky) October 2, 2023
In another video circulated on social media, Iranian fans were seen hurling objects from the stands toward the Soleimani statue in protest of the match’s cancellation.
FIFA, the global governing body of football, has consistently emphasized that football should not be utilized as a platform for political messaging and that the primary focus should remain on the game itself
Soleimani, who led the Quds Force, the overseas arm of the IRGC, was killed in a US airstrike in Iraq in 2020. His legacy is marked by controversy, with the Iranian regime hailing him as a hero while facing a less favorable perception from those outside the Iranian regime.
This year’s Asian Champions League marks the first time since 2016 that clubs from Saudi Arabia and Iran have been permitted to compete against each other home and away.
This decision followed the restoration of diplomatic relations between the two countries in March.
Previously, matches had been played on neutral ground due to strained diplomatic ties, which prevented Saudi nationals from traveling to Iran.