Saudi-Iran tensions overshadow Asian football tournaments

The Saudi team pose for steam photo ahead of their first round soccer match of the AFC Asia Cup against China in Brisbane, Australia, Jan. 10, 2015. (AP)

The political tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran may filter onto the football pitch in the coming weeks with teams from the two nations due to play each other in the Asian Champions League and the Asian Under-23 Championships.

Relations between the countries deteriorated sharply in early January when Saudi Arabia executed a Shiite preacher and Iranian protesters responded by attacking the Saudi embassy in Tehran and a consulate in Mashhad. Riyadh then broke off diplomatic relations with Tehran.

As the standoff has escalated, Saudi Arabia’s leading football clubs asked the Asian Football Confederation to move Champions League matches between clubs from the two nations in February to neutral venues. Muhammad Al-Nuwaiser, the vice-president of the Saudi Arabia Football Federation, also tweeted that the protests in Iran showed that it should not host football games.

There are already six games scheduled between the countries in the group stage of the continent’s biggest club competition and, depending on preliminary playoff results, there could be as many as eight.

That leaves plenty of opportunity for tensions to spill over on the field, according to James Dorsey, an expert in Middle East football politics at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University.

“Football is politics and that is certainly true with regard to international matches, particularly in countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran where political control of the sport is tight,” Dorsey told The Associated Press.

The AFC said in a statement last week that it was “monitoring the situation” in both countries, but has not commented further.

Saudi Arabia and Iran’s under-23 teams could also meet at the Asian Under-23 Championships, which start Tuesday in Qatar.

Iran has been drawn in Group A and Saudi Arabia in Group B, meaning the teams could play in the quarterfinals if one finishes first and the other second in their respective groups.

The tournament also carries significance as it will decide which three Asian teams will go to the Rio de Janeiro Olympics this year.

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Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 13:57 - GMT 10:57
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