Football, it is often said, can unite nations in love with the game.
But in Iran, it appears they see things differently.
Saudi Arabia and Iran were at loggerheads for years, but in March, with much fanfare, the Chinese announced they had brokered a deal between the two countries. Diplomatic relations were restored. And from last month, football matches could start being played on their home grounds, instead of in third-party venues. But for Iran, political scoring is all important.
A furious row erupted on Monday after an Iranian football club tried to use a match against Saudi opponents for political propaganda.
The AFC Champions League match at the Naghsh-e-Jahan Stadium in Isfahan between Sepahan and Jeddah team Al-Ittihad was called off when the Iranian club refused to remove political banners and busts of the late Revolutionary Guard warlord Qassem Soleimani from the edge of the pitch. Soleimani ran the overseas arm of Iran’s powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and was a blunt critic of the Saudi government and the kingdom’s ruling Al Saud family. He was killed in a US drone strike in Baghdad in 2020.
Al-Itiihad staff and some players noted the busts and banners at an initial pitch inspection, and reported the issue to the referee and observers from the Asian Football Confederation. AFC rules explicitly outlaw the use of a football match to promote a political message. Confederation officials asked Sepahan staff to remove the offending propaganda, but they refused.
After requesting a delay of half an hour to assess the situation, the Saudi team and staff left the stadium to head to the airport and back to Saudi Arabia.
The confederation said Monday’s second round group stage match had been “cancelled due to unanticipated and unforeseen circumstances. The AFC reiterates its commitment toward ensuring the safety and security of the players, match officials, spectators, and all stakeholders involved. This matter will now be referred to the relevant committees.”
The Saudi Football Federation said in an Arabic statement on Tuesday that it confirms “its full support for Al-Ittihad Club and will be taking all legal measures to preserve the rights” of the Saudi Pro League champions.
The Jeddah club said, “Al-Ittihad Club will follow up on the circumstances of the decision and calls on the AFC to protect the club’s rights guaranteed by the rules and regulations,” in an Arabic post on X.