Asian CL match off as Saudi club won’t take field

Al-Ittihad’s Asian Champions League match with Iran’s Sepahan was called off on Monday after the Saudi team refused to leave their dressing room due to a statue of an assassinated Iranian general being placed at the entrance to the pitch.

The game was postponed by officials at the Naghsh-e Jahan Stadium in Isfahan, where around 60,000 fans had turned out to see Sepahan take on an Al-Ittihad starting lineup that was due to include former Premier League stars N’golo Kante and Fabinho.

The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) said the game had been “cancelled due to unanticipated and unforeseen circumstances.”

“The AFC reiterates its commitment towards ensuring the safety and security of the players, match officials, spectators, and all stakeholders involved,” the body said in a statement.

“This matter will now be referred to the relevant committees.”

Qasem Soleimani, a prominent general in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, was killed near Baghdad airport in a United States drone strike in January 2020 and is viewed as a martyr by the country’s ruling regime.

Photographs from the stadium published on social media showed a bust of Soleimani had been placed at the entrance to the pitch and would have been in full view of the players as they exited the tunnel.

Relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia have long been strained and this year’s Asian Champions League is the first since 2016 in which clubs from both nations have been permitted to play one another home and away.

Matches between clubs from the two nations were previously played on neutral territory due to security concerns.

Cristiano Ronaldo led his Al-Nassr side to Tehran two weeks ago to face Persepolis at the Azadi Stadium, although that game was played in an empty stadium due to a one-game spectator ban given to the Iranian club by the AFC due to fan behavior.

Tuesday’s match between another Saudi Pro League team, Al Hilal, and Iranian side Nassaji Mazandaran may also be in jeopardy due to the conditions of the pitch.

Nassaji coach Seyyed Mehdi Rahmati conceded that the pitch for Tuesday’s Asian Champions League game — which will not be staged at their home venue, but at Tehran’s Azadi stadium — would not be in optimal condition after Al Hilal player Neymar called the field into question on social media.

“I must not be responsible for the inappropriate and undesirable conditions of Azadi stadium,” Rahmati said in Monday’s news conference as reported on his club’s Instagram. “They were trying to improve the field on our visit, but that doesn’t happen for the game no matter how hard they try.”

Neymar, who joined Al Hilal from PSG this summer, responded to a video posted on Sunday on social media that showed workers patching up part of the surface with a post on X, formerly known as Twitter, that simply read: “This is not possible.”

Al Hilal coach Jorge Jesus said in Monday’s news conference: “I hope that the field of the stadium helps both teams to present an outstanding match. Al Hilal has a great and magnificent history in the Asian competition, and our target is to win and continue this journey of the team.”

Reports surfaced later on Monday that Al Hilal had been told by the SPL to leave Iran and return to Saudi Arabia immediately with the game expected to be postponed.

Al Hilal, who have won the competition a record four times, drew 1-1 with Uzbekistan’s Navbahor in Riyadh on Sep. 18 in their Asian Champions League group opener.

ESPN correspondent Adriana Garcia contributed to this story. Information from Reuters was also included.

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