A diplomatic tension resulted in the cancellation of the Al-Ittihad match, which includes players like Benzema, Fabinho, and Kanté, against Sepahan in Iran in the Asian Champions League. The Saudi team refused to take the field at Naghsh-e Jahan Stadium due to the presence of a bust of General Qassem Soleimani, a controversial Iranian leader who died in 2020.
The game was scheduled to start at 1:00 PM (Brasília time), but Al-Ittihad chose to leave the stadium due to Soleimani’s bust. The Asian Football Confederation (AFC), in a statement issued an hour and a half after the scheduled start time, confirmed the cancellation of the match and stated that the matter would be handled by the competent authorities.
Qassem Soleimani was the leader of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard and died in January 2020 in Baghdad, Iraq, following an airstrike ordered by the United States, which caused significant tension in the region at the time. He was highly regarded in Iran and had a close relationship with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
In addition to Qassem Soleimani’s bust, there were two other busts nearby whose identities were not disclosed. The visiting team interpreted the presence of these statues as provocation. According to Iranian media, Sepahan claimed that the controversial leader’s bust had been at the stadium for four years.
According to Saudi media, Al-Ittihad made the decision not to play with the support of an AFC representative present at the site. FIFA prohibits political demonstrations during matches, especially by clubs.
The team, which includes Brazilian players like Fabinho, Romarinho, Igor Coronado, and Marcelo Grohe, risks being declared the loser by forfeit, but the case will be investigated. Sepahan may also face penalties due to the presence of the political leader’s image in the stadium, and there is a possibility that the game will be rescheduled at a neutral venue.
Benzema, who was injured, did not travel to Iran. The visiting club did not even take the field for warm-up. Journalists at the stadium reported that Al-Ittihad players and officials also complained about banners with political messages in the Sepahan’s stands.
Local media reported that Al-Ittihad was willing to play if Qassem Soleimani’s bust was removed from the field, but the stadium administrators did not accept the request, leading the Saudi club to maintain its decision not to participate in the game.
Saudi Arabian clubs returned to play in Iran after seven years. Since 2016, matches between the two teams were held on neutral grounds due to political tension between the two countries. Al-Nassr made its debut in the Asian Champions League on Iranian soil with a 2-0 victory over Persepolis in Tehran. Al-Hilal, Neymar’s team, will also play in the Iranian capital against Nassaji Mazarandan on Tuesday.
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