Saudi club refuse to play in Iran over statues of slain general Soleimani

Saudi club refuse to play in Iran over statues of slain general Soleimani

As a result of the Saudi team’s refusal to leave their changing room, Al-Ittihad’s Asian Champions League match against Sepahan of Iran was cancelled on Monday.

The Saudi team, led by Nuno Espirito Santo, a former manager of Wolves and Tottenham, and boasting superstars N’Golo Kante and Fabinho, objected to a statue of a murdered Iranian commander being erected at the pitch’s entrance.

At the moment, there were about 60,000 spectators waiting for kickoff in the Naghsh-e Jahn Stadium in Isfahan, Iran.

Due to security concerns, matches between Saudi Arabian and Iranian clubs have previously been played on neutral grounds since 2016 due to tensions between the two countries.

The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) said the game had been “cancelled due to unanticipated and unforeseen circumstances”.

“The AFC reiterates its commitment towards ensuring the safety and security of the players, match officials, spectators, and all stakeholders involved,” the body said in a statement.

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

The statue was of Iranian military commander Qasem Soleimani. He was killed near Baghdad airport in a United States drone strike in January 2020.

Saudi Arabia designated Soleimani and other senior commanders of the Quds Force, the overseas operations arm of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards, as terrorists in 2018.

The Saudis held Soleimani responsible for Iran’s regional activities and accused them of attacks on Gulf shipping, on Saudi oil installations and of support for Houthi rebels in Yemen who have attacked Saudi cities. Iran denied this.

This season has seen the return of Saudi clubs to Iran for the first time since 2016, when a group of hardline Iranian militiamen called the Basij – part of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – attacked the Saudi embassy in Tehran.

After that, teams from Saudi Arabia refused to travel to Iran for any international sports competition, saying their security was not guaranteed.

Cristiano Ronaldo’s Al-Nassr were the first Saudi side to play in Iran this season when they beat Persepolis last month in an Asian Champions League match.

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