Footage shared on social media showed fans of the Iranian team chanting “we don’t want politics in soccer.”

A bust of former IRGC Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani in a stadium in Isfahan.
(photo credit: Morteza Salehi/Tasnim News Agency)

The Saudi al-Ittihad soccer club withdrew from a match against the Iranian Sepahan soccer club on Monday due to a bust of former Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani which was on display next to the field.

The Saudi al-Ekhbariya TV channel reported that Iranian officials were asked to remove the statue and banners, but the officials refused to do so, leading to the Saudi team withdrawing from the match.

Footage shared on social media showed fans of the Iranian team chanting “we don’t want politics in soccer.”

Iran rejects complaints against Soleimani statue

The IRGC-affiliated Tasnim News Agency reported that the bust of Soleimani is part of the structure of the Naghsh-e-Jahan Stadium in Isfahan and has been in the stadium since shortly after Soleimani’s assassination.

Al-Ittihad’s Football Club players arrive ahead of their Asian Champions League match with Iran’s Sepahan at the Naghsh-e Jahan Stadium in Isfahan, Iran. October 2, 2023. (credit: Al-Ittihad Football Club Media Office/Handout via REUTERS)

Soleimani was assassinated alongside Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in a US drone strike next to the Baghdad International Airport on January 3, 2020.

The Iranian Fars News Agency noted that the Saudi team trained in the stadium the day before the match without complaint. An article on Fars’ website questioned if the decision to withdraw from the match was an attempt by Saudi Arabia to draw closer to Israel.

Former Iranian soccer referee Nozer Rudneil claimed in an interview with Fars that the Saudi team and even the AFC have “no right to comment on the presence of a statue of a national hero.” Rudneil called for the match to be declared in Sepahan’s favor and for penalties to be considered against the Saudi team.

The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) was cited as stating that the match was cancelled due to “unforeseen circumstances.”

“The AFC is committed to ensuring the safety and security of players, match officials, fans, and all relevant stakeholders and this matter will now be referred to the relevant committees.”

The Sepahan club stated that it would submit a complaint to the AFC concerning the withdrawal, according to the Iranian IRNA new agency.

The al-Ittihad team left Iran shortly after leaving the stadium, arriving in Jeddah later in the night. Representatives from the Saudi Embassy in Iran accompanied the athletes to the airport.

Saudi Arabia and Iran only recently resumed diplomatic relations, with the Saudi ambassador to Iran having arrived in the country in early September.

As reported by The Jerusalem Post