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Source: The Guardian

Oct 5, 2023

Iran and Saudi Arabia tensions leave Asian Champions League in a mess

New stars brought high hopes for the competition – but old rivalries and politics are once again rearing their ugly heads

There are different ways to say “Football, Bloody Hell”. Alex Ferguson’s tone after Manchester United’s win over Barcelona in the 1999 Champions League final was full of wonder and delight.

In Asia, exasperation is currently more common, especially if the order of words is switched to move the football part to the end. Another cliche is correct in that this game really can be one of two halves, the beautiful side bringing people together and the other doing anything but.

It was only last month that the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) announced clubs from Iran and Saudi Arabia would play home and away in the Asian Champions League for the first time since 2015. It was, the governing body said, a “positive development, a groundbreaking agreement” and a “historic move”. Here was the sport helping to break down barriers.

Yet after two fixtures featuring Saudi Arabian teams in Iran, fans in the stadiums have yet to see a ball kicked. The first was two weeks ago as Cristiano Ronaldo came to Tehran with Al-Nassr to face Persepolis and received the warmest of welcomes.

The team bus was besieged by local supporters everywhere it went, the 38 year-old was gifted a Persian rug, signed a shirt for a disabled supporter (there were reports that this was taken by Persepolis officials) and departed after thanking Iranian fans on social media.

Yet no one saw him play. Instead of 80,000 fans being inside the Azadi Stadium, it was empty. Persepolis supporters were not allowed in as a punishment for a social media post the club published before a 2021 Champions League clash with FC Goa that referenced the Iranian invasions of India in the 1730s.

More serious, however, was what occurred on Monday. This time there were 60,000 fans waiting at the Isfahan home of Sepahan to welcome Al-Ittihad, the Saudi Arabian champions with Nuno Espírito Santo in charge and N’Golo Kanté and Fabinho in midfield (Karim Benzema remains injured).

Yet 30 minutes after kick-off was due to take place, Al-Ittihad were leaving Iran and heading back to Jeddah before a ball had been kicked, leading to Sepahan fans expressing their displeasure and singing, “We reject the politicisation of football.”

Sepahan players leave the pitch after the match against Al-Ittihad was called off. Photograph: Morteza Salehi/AFP/Getty Images

They can reject all they want but in Asia it is very much a case of the chance being a fine thing. If any set of fans are sick of the two combining then it is the longsuffering supporters in Iran where most clubs are owned either directly or indirectly by the state, the federation struggles to receive money from overseas organisations due to international sanctions and women are not usually allowed to enter stadiums.

Monday’s events were added to the list. Saudi Arabian television reported that Al-Ittihad refused to play due to the presence of three busts lined up on the side of the pitch that the players would walk past after emerging from the tunnel.

All three featured the likeness of Qasem Soleimani, the powerful figure who had been the head of the Quds Force, the foreign operations arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp. A hero in Iran, his reputation was different in some other countries as he was seen as playing a big part in training and leading armed groups in the region. Designated as a terrorist by the United States, he was killed by a US drone strike at Baghdad Airport in 2020.

Soleimani has now posthumously been placed in the middle of a football spat that risks spilling over into something more serious. At the very least, the episode shows that the recent warming of relations between Tehran and Riyadh – in April diplomatic ties were suddenly and surprisingly restored after an absence of seven years in a deal brokered by Beijing – is relative. The thaw has some way to go.

As has the fallout from events in Isfahan. The third round of games in the group stage takes place in the final week of October, giving the AFC a little time. Officials in Kuala Lumpur will have watched the events with growing dread, however, because both sides are going to want the three points.

From the hosts, the argument is likely to be that Al-Ittihad forfeited the game. The Saudis had trained the previous day under the gaze of the former military leader who had been in place pitchside for some time. It is a simple case of a club not fulfilling their fixtures and, regardless, there are plenty of west Asian stadiums where the action takes place under giant images of leaders, religious and/or political, looking down from the stands.

The opposite view is that having easily movable plinths of military figures on the pitch constitutes a political act that runs contrary to the tournament’s rules. The obvious argument is that if busts are allowed in the players’ faces then what is not? In the return fixture, there are figures whose likeness Al-Ittihad could place pitchside that Iranian officials may not want their players walking past in full view of the television cameras and a roaring home crowd.

On the opposite side of the continent, the possibilities for China, Japan and the two Koreas to provoke each other would be almost endless and that is even before we get to the wonderful and colourful world of south-east Asian football with disputed islands, disputed origins of famous dishes and disputed batik.

According to reports, the game between Sepahan and Al-Ittihad will be replayed on a yet-to-be confirmed date, but this situation remains a mess, especially given the high hopes for the Champions League this year given the new stars in Saudi Arabia and the lauded rapprochement between the two leading powers of the Middle East. “Bloody Hell football” indeed.

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