Saudi soccer team cancels Iranian match over Soleimani statue

Soccer match between Saudi and Iranian teams nixed after Saudis learned that a statute of late Iranian general, eliminated by US strike, was erected in stadium.

By Andrew Bernard, The Algemeiner

A soccer match between Saudi Arabia’s Al Ittihad FC and Iran’s Sepahan FC due to take place in Isfahan, Iran, on Monday was reportedly canceled over the presence in the stadium of a bust of the late Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who was the head of the elite Quds force branch of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), a US-designated terrorist organization.

While neither team has confirmed the statue was the cause of the cancellation, the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) that organizes the tournament the two clubs were playing in confirmed the match was off.

“[The] match between Sepahan FC and Al Ittihad FC, which was scheduled to take place at the Naghsh-e-Jahan Stadium in Isfahan tonight, has been cancelled due to unanticipated and unforeseen circumstances,” the AFC said in a statement. “This matter will now be referred to the relevant committees.”

Citing anonymous sources, Saudi media reported that Al Ittihad had requested that the statue of Soleimani be removed, giving officials 30 minutes to act before they then departed the stadium and returned to Saudi Arabia.

According to Iran’s semi-official Fars News Agency, the bust of Soleimani has been at the stadium for years. Saudi media reports say that the team noticed the statue during a pitch inspection on Monday.

Soleimani was the leader of the IRGC’s Quds Force — which is responsible for Iran’s proxies and terror operations abroad — before he was killed in a US drone strike in Iraq in 2020. He is revered by the Islamic Republic as a martyr and is commemorated across the country.

Videos on social media from the stadium show some of the estimated 60,000 fans in attendance shouting in Farsi “death to the dictator” and “we do not want to politicize soccer,” while others threw water bottles and other objects towards the statue.

Monday’s match was intended to be the first between a Saudi and an Iranian club in either country since Riyadh and Tehran restored normal diplomatic relations earlier this year. Since 2016, when Saudi Arabia and Iran broke off relations, their soccer clubs have played on neutral ground in regional tournaments.

While the Middle Eastern rivals have attempted to de-escalate tensions after signing a Chinese-brokered agreement to restore normal relations in April, this is not the first time since the agreement that the image of Soleimani has caused tensions. In June, when Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Faisal bin Furhan visited Tehran, a press conference with his Iranian counterpart had to be hastily moved to a different room in Iran’s Foreign Ministry when attendees realized that a photo of Soleimani would have appeared over Furhan’s shoulder.

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