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Al-Ittihad Refuses to Play Match Due to Statue of Assassinated Iranian General

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The Asian Champions League match between Saudi Arabian club Al-Ittihad and Iran’s Sepahan was called off after the Saudi team refused to leave their dressing room. This decision was made in response to the statue of an assassinated Iranian general placed at the entrance to the pitch. The game was scheduled to take place at Naghsh-e Jahan Stadium in Isfahan, and around 60,000 fans were present to watch Sepahan face an Al-Ittihad starting lineup, which included former Premier League stars N’golo Kante and Fabinho.

Officials at the stadium decided to postpone the match, stating that it had been cancelled due to unanticipated and unforeseen circumstances. The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) expressed its commitment to ensuring the safety and security of all individuals involved, including players, officials, and spectators. The AFC also announced that the matter would be referred to the relevant committees for further investigation.

The statue in question was of Qasem Soleimani, an influential general in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps who was killed in a United States drone strike near Baghdad airport in January 2020. Soleimani is regarded as a martyr by Iran’s ruling regime. Images shared on social media revealed that the bust of Soleimani was prominently placed at the entrance to the pitch, visible to the players as they exited the tunnel.

Relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia have long been strained, and this year’s Asian Champions League allows clubs from both nations to play against each other home and away for the first time since 2016. Previously, matches between clubs from Iran and Saudi Arabia were held on neutral territory due to security concerns.

In a separate match, Al-Nassr, led by Cristiano Ronaldo, faced Persepolis at Tehran’s Azadi Stadium. However, this game was played without spectators due to a one-game ban imposed by the AFC on the Iranian club for fan misconduct. Another match between Al Hilal, a Saudi Pro League team, and Iranian side Nassaji Mazandaran may also face complications due to the poor condition of the pitch at Tehran’s Azadi Stadium.

Neymar, a player for Al Hilal, criticized the field conditions in a tweet, questioning the suitability of the pitch for the upcoming match. The coach of Nassaji Mazandaran, Seyyed Mehdi Rahmati, addressed this issue in a news conference, admitting that the field would not be optimal for the game. Al Hilal coach Jorge Jesus expressed his hope that both teams would have a great match despite the field conditions.

Later on Monday, reports emerged that Al Hilal had been instructed by the Saudi Pro League to leave Iran immediately and return to Saudi Arabia. This suggests that the match between Al Hilal and Nassaji Mazandaran is likely to be postponed. Al Hilal drew 1-1 with Navbahor from Uzbekistan in their Asian Champions League group opener.

Contributions to this story were made by ESPN correspondent Adriana Garcia, and information from Reuters was also included.

Rachel Adams

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