October 3 – The newly found football friendship between Iran and Saudi Arabia suffered its first set back Monday after the AFC called off the Champions League fixture between Sepahan and Al-Ittihad at the Naghsh-e-Jahan Stadium in Isfahan at the last minutes and with 60,000 fans in the stadium.
Pre-match, Al-Ittihad staff and some players noted three busts of Iranian military commander Qasem Soleimani who was killed near Baghdad airport in a US drone strike in January 2020.
The busts and political messages were reported to the referee and the AFC match commissioners who asked for them to be removed. That request was refused.
The AFC took the decision to cancel the match while the teams were in the dressing rooms.
Reports that Al Ittihad refused to play are incorrect with sources telling Insideworldfootball that they would have played if the AFC had given the go-ahead.
The AFC’s competition rules state clearly that no political messages can be displayed. If the busts were part of the stadium architecture then the situation would have been different, but they weren’t and had been deliberately placed in front of the players’ entry to the pitch.
In a statement the AFC said 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.
“This matter will now be referred to the relevant committees.”
It is expected that the AFC will move quickly to rule on the disciplinary measures in this case. Certainly Sepahan will lose the points and likely be fined, but the real question is over whether they will be allowed to continue in the competition, and that would require a commitment to removing the political messaging for future home games.
Saudi clubs are drawn against Iranian teams in three of the AFC’s West zone group stages if the Asian Champions League. Two weeks ago Persepolis hosted Ronaldo’s Al Nassr, in a match that was notable for the enthusiasm of fans and welcome given to the Saudi team.
Tonight Nassaji Mazandaran host Al Hilal in Tehran. AFC insiders told Insideworldfootball that they do not anticipate any similar issues.
The AFC sanctioned the return of home and away Champions League matches for the first time since 2015. Since 2016 clubs from the two nations drawn against each other in AFC competition were mandated to play ties at neutral venues.
The AFC decision came in parallel with the football federations of both countries signing a memorandum of understanding signalling a new era of collaboration and partnership.
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