Saudi football club Al-Ittihad refused to come to the pitch for their Monday match against Iran’s Sepahan due to a statue of a slain IRGC general in the stadium.
Al-Ittihad football (soccer) club players did not leave their dressing-room because a statue of Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani was placed at the entrance to the pitch at Esfahan’s Naghsh-e- Jahan Stadium. The team went directly to the airport and left for Saudi Arabia.
The game was postponed by officials at the stadium, where around 60,000 fans had turned out to see Sepahan take on an Al-Ittihad starting line-up that was due to include former Premier League stars Ngolo Kante and Fabinho.
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.”
Qassem Soleimani was a key figure in Iran’s external military and intelligence operations, responsible for supporting and organizing militant proxy forces, including Lebanese Hezbollah and Iraqi Shiite militia groups that have engaged in hostilities against US forces in the region. He was killed near Baghdad airport in a United States drone strike in January 2020.
Introduced as a hero, he is viewed as a martyr by the country’s ruling regime, which has erected dozens of statues of him all across the country. It has also set up numerous annual events to commemorate the general of the IRGC’s Quds Force, which has been a threat to the US and its partners in the region, including Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Opposing the regime’s mystification and heroization of Soleimani, who formed several regional militia groups aligned to the regime in Tehran, Iranians have set fire to or destroyed his statues and banners as an icon of the Islamic autocracy.
Photographs from the stadium published on social media showed a bust of Soleimani had been placed at the entrance to the pitch and would have been in full view of the players as they exited the tunnel.
In June, visiting Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan also walked out of the room at Iran’s foreign ministry building – where a news conference was being held — in protest to a picture of the IRGC general, the architect of proxy wars in the Middle East, including arming Yemen’s Houthis against Saudi Arabia.
Prince Faisal immediately requested the venue of the press conference to be changed and the Iranian side complied in a bid not to tarnish the newly revived relations between the two countries after years of tension which isolated the Iranian régime in the region.
Relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia have long been strained and this year’s Asian football Champions League is the first since 2016 in which clubs from both nations have been permitted to play one another home and away. Matches between clubs from the two nations were previously played on neutral territory due to security concerns.