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ASIA

Why did Al Ittihad refuse to play the Asian Champions League match in Iran?

The team of Karim Benzema, N’Golo Kanté and Fabinho are protesting against the presence of a bust of former Iranian leader Qasem Soleimani.

Al Ittihad refuse to play Asian Champions League match in Iran
FAYEZ NURELDINEAFP

An Asian Champions League fixture between Iranian side Sepahan and Al Ittihad of the Saudi Pro League has been suspended due to a controversial pitch-side statue.

Al Ittihad, with former Premier League stars N’Golo Kanté and Fabinho in the team, refused to take to the field at Naghsh-e-Jahan Stadium, despite there being 60,000 supporters in attendance. It has since been reported that Al Ittihad have left the stadium, leaving the fixture’s fate up in the air.

The team’s decision was the result of their opposition to a bust of Qasem Soleimani that was stationed between the team benches. Soleimani was an Iranian general who died in a drone strike in 2020. Officials from Al Ittihad have reportedly refused to play due to the “presence of political elements on the field of play that have nothing to do with football.”

Who is Qasem Soleimani?

The Asian Champions League fixture takes place in the background of significant diplomatic tensions between the two nations. Iran and Saudi Arabia have imposed a series of restrictions on the other in result years, most notably a ban on Saudi citizens stepping foot on Iranian territory.

That seven-year prohibition was loosened to allow this fixture to take place but that has not cooled tensions.

The statue of Qasem Soleimani proved a decisive issue for the Saudi team due to his controversial and often violent history as a military leader. From 1998 to 2020 Soleimani served as the commander of Iran’s Quds Force, who oversaw and enacted extraterritorial and clandestine military operations.

He was often characterised as a close confident of Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran. The United States designated Soleimani as a terrorist in 2005 and the United Nations and the European Union both issued sanctions against him.

The Saudi side reportedly told match officials that they are unwilling to play the game while a monument to Soleimani is present at the side of the pitch for this high-profile Asian Champions League clash. Subsequent reports suggest that Al Ittihad left the stadium due to the statue and have refused to play the game.

It’s now up to the Asian Football Association to decide how best to deal with what could become a major diplomatic incident playing out in their soccer competition.