March 16 – Despite warning it may withdraw its teams, Iran has been ordered to play its home regional Champions League matches against Saudi Arabian clubs on neutral ground because of the breakdown in political relations between the rivals.
Last month, the Asian Football Confederation decided to amend the schedule for games between clubs from the two nations but stopped short, pending further checks, of upholding a Saudi request to stage the fixtures on neutral territory because of safety concerns.
The AFC’s Competitions Committee set March 15 as the date for an evaluation of the situation to be complete but made it clear that if there was no return to normal relations by then, all matches between teams from Saudi Arabia and Iran will be played at neutral venues for the rest of the competition.
That is what will now happen in a ruling that is bound to rile the Iranians.
In a letter to both the Saudi Arabia Football Federation (SAFF) and the Iran Football Federation (IRIFF), the AFC said: “It is most unfortunate for the AFC to learn that at the time of writing, the Saudi Arabian government has yet to lift the travel restrictions on their nationals, which prohibit travel to IR Iran. This travel ban offers no special dispensation for football teams.
“Furthermore, there has been no significant development in the relationship between the two countries concerned.”
The letter added that in order to have an in-depth understanding of safety and security, the International Centre for Sport Security (ICSS) was engaged to carry out an independent evaluation while AFC officials attended last month’s Iran home fixtures against clubs from the United Arab Emirates to assess the risks.
No details have been provided in terms of what was learned but the upshot is that Iran’s home games against Saudi rivals will now be played on neutral ground. Both nations have been given until March 25 to come up with suggestions for venues.
Iran were quick to denounce the AFC directive saying it would object because Saudi Arabia “has brought a political issue into football which is against AFC and (world governing body) FIFA’s statutes…”.
“Iran hosted Emirati games under the best condition and absolute security. Iran is known as a safe country in Asia and in the world so it will certainly react to this issue.”
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