TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iran said Wednesday it has agreed with Saudi Arabia to reschedule an Asian Champions League match after the Saudi team walked out at the last minute, apparently over the presence of a statue of a slain Iranian general.
The walkout appeared to further strain a recent rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, longtime rivals who have backed opposite sides in conflicts across the Middle East. But in the days since, both sides have appeared eager to move past it.
The Saudi Al Ittihad team did not come out onto the field in Isfahan on Monday, where some 60,000 fans were eagerly awaiting their match against Iran’s Sepahan. Saudi Arabia’s state-run Al Ekhbariya TV said they refused to come out because of a statue of the late Gen. Qassem Soleimani placed outside the entrance tunnel.
Soleimani, who commanded the elite Quds Force of Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard, is seen as a war hero by Iran’s clerical rulers and their supporters but vilified by Western and many Arab nations because of his role in leading Iran’s military activities across the region. He was killed in a U.S. drone strike in neighboring Iraq in 2020.
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Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian told reporters Wednesday that the two sides would reschedule the match and urged the Asian Football Confederation to review the incident on a “technical” basis.
“We should not allow sport to be used as political leverage” by any side, he said.
He went on to say that relations with Saudi Arabia are moving in the right direction, and that he had been in direct contect with his Saudi counterpart on Monday night.
Saudi officials have not commented on the walkout.
Al Ittihad released a statement hours after the walkout saying the team had left the stadium and flown home because it was told by league organizers that the match would not take place as scheduled. The Saudi Arabian Football Federation put out a statement expressing support for the team. Neither statement mentioned the Soleimani statue, one of three placed around the stadium.
Mohammad Reza Saket, the chairman of Sepahan, told Iranian state TV late Monday that Al Ittihad had made “demands that were outside of the norms of sport,” without elaborating. He said the stadium had been inspected and approved by the AFC prior to the match.
The AFC said the match was canceled “due to unanticipated and unforeseen circumstances,” without elaborating. On Tuesday, Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal club defeated Iran’s Nassaji in a match in the Iranian capital, Tehran.
The soccer tournament, which features 40 teams from around Asia, is the first since 2015 to see Saudi Arabian and Iranian teams play on each other’s soil. After the countries severed diplomatic relations in 2016, games usually took place in neutral venues.
The two countries restored diplomatic relations earlier this year in an agreement brokered by China. That raised hopes that the devastating war between a Saudi-led coalition and Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthi rebels, which has been winding down in recent years, might finally come to an end.
But tensions rose again last month after an attack killed four soldiers who were patrolling Saudi Arabia’s southern border with Yemen. The soldiers were from Bahrain, a close Saudi ally, and the coalition blamed the Houthis, who have not publicly acknowledged the attack.