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Boycott and Bust: Iranian-Saudi Football Match Cancelled Over Political Controversy

© AFP

For seven years, matches between Iranian and Saudi clubs had to be played on neutral grounds. The boycott has been lifted since last month, but things have gone wrong again.

The group match in the Asian Champions League between Iranian Sepahan and Saudi Al Ittihad was canceled because the players of Al Ittihad, the club of (the injured) Karim Benzema, refused to enter the field as long as there was a bust of the deceased general of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards, Qassem Suleimani.

Employees and players of Al-Itiihad – the club of N’Golo Kante, Fabinho and the injured Karim Benzema – noticed the bust and banners during an inspection of the pitch and reported it to the referee and observers of the Asian Football Federation AFC. The AFC rules explicitly prohibit the use of a football match to spread political messages.

Officials asked the home team to remove the bust and banners, but they refused. Al-Itiihad then left the stadium and headed to the airport to fly back to Saudi Arabia. There were 60,000 fans in the stadium, but they didn’t see a ball.

“Cancelled due to unexpected and unforeseen circumstances,” the Asian Football Association announced.

(read more below the photo)

© EPA-EFE

After seven years of diplomatic tensions, Saudi Arabia and Iran signed a Chinese-brokered deal in March to resume ties between the countries. Only since last year can home and away matches be played between football teams from both countries. before that, confrontations were played on neutral ground.

For the Saudis, the bust of Qassem Suleimani must have felt like a provocation. After all, Soleimani is held (partly) responsible for a plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador. Suleimani was killed in a US drone strike in 2020.

The Saudi Football Association gave its full support to Al Ittihad and said it would “take all measures to protect the rights” of the Saudi champions.

The question now is whether the match will still be played or whether a forfeit score will be awarded.

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