A football match between Saudi and Iranian teams has been canceled amid a dust-up over a statue of slain Revolutionary Guards commander Qasem Soleimani, a club source tells AFP.
The match between Sepahan FC and Al Ittihad FC set to take place in the Iranian city of Isfahan “has been canceled due to unanticipated and unforeseen circumstances,” the AFC Champions League says in a statement, without elaborating.
However, an official with Saudi side Al Ittihad says a dispute arose after club administrators objected to a bust of Soleimani, who was killed by a US drone strike in 2020.
“The club administrators found a bust of Qasem Soleimani in the walkway to the pitch. It’s a pure football game and [the bust’s] presence is totally irrelevant,” the official says.
“We asked them to remove it before going to the pre-game warm-up and they didn’t remove it. The team went back to the lockers.”
The official says the two sides then met with AFC representatives to determine if the match would be rescheduled.
Soleimani commanded the foreign operations arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and remains a revered figure in Iran following his 2020 assassination.
The Iranian news agency ISNA reports that the match had been canceled “by the decision of the referee,” without giving a reason.
“We will prepare our complaint about this incident and present it to the Asian Football Confederation,” the agency says.
The dispute comes one month after Saudi Arabia and Iran announced a “groundbreaking” deal to resume home-and-away football matches between club sides after seven years of competing in neutral venues.
That agreement was the latest sign of rapprochement stemming from a surprise China-brokered deal announced in March that saw the long-time rivals agree to restore diplomatic relations and reopen their respective embassies following a seven-year rupture.
Cristiano Ronaldo’s Saudi club Al Nassr played a match in Tehran on September 19, the first time a Saudi club had played in Iran since 2016.