The Saudi Arabian Football Federation has thrown its full support behind Al Ittihad following the cancellation of their Asian Champions League match with Iran’s Sepahan on Monday night, insisting it will take “all legal measures to preserve the rights” of the Saudi champions.
The Group C fixture at the Naghsh-e-Jahan Stadium in Isfahan was called off after Ittihad reportedly refused to enter the pitch because a bust of the late Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps general Qassem Suleimani was on display at the entrance.
The Asian Football Confederation (AFC), the continent’s governing body, later said the match had been “cancelled due to unanticipated and unforeseen circumstances”.
Ittihad, two-time Asian champions, left the stadium not long after the postponement was confirmed to fly back to Jeddah.
On Tuesday morning, the Saudi Arabian Football Federation (SAFF) said: “The Saudi Football Federation closely monitored the scheduled match on Monday evening between the national representative, Al Ittihad Club, and its host, Sepahan Isfahan, from Iran, in the second round of the AFC Champions League.
“The Saudi Federation commends the Asian Football Confederation's dedication to ensuring the match takes place under suitable conditions, a commitment noticed and appreciated by the Saudi Federation through continuous monitoring by its two representatives accompanying Al Ittihad Club in Iran.
“The Saudi Federation affirms its unwavering support for Al Ittihad Club and pledges to take all necessary legal measures to protect the club's rights.”
In a statement, minutes before the SAFF post, Ittihad said: “Al Ittihad Club wishes to clarify that upon its arrival on Monday, October 2, at the stadium designated for the match against the Iranian Sepahan Club, the AFC inspector told them that the match would not take place on the scheduled date and that the team can leave the stadium. Subsequently, the club's delegation left the stadium en route to the airport.
“Al Ittihad Club intends to pursue the details of this decision and urges the AFC to protect the club's rights as stipulated by the rules and regulations.
“In this regard, the club expresses gratitude for the attention and support received from the Ambassador of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques to the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Ministry of Sports, and the Saudi Football Federation.”
An Ittihad official had earlier told AFP that club administrators discovered the bust of Qassem Suleimani on the path from the stadium tunnel to the pitch, labelling its presence as “totally irrelevant”.
The official said they requested the bust be removed, but when that did not happen, representatives of the two teams met with the AFC to determine if the match would be rescheduled.
Iran's state news outlet Irna reported that Sepahan said the match was cancelled by the referee after Ittihad players left the stadium.
Footage on social media depicted home supporters – the attendance was believed to be close to 60,000 – throwing items towards the statue and chanting “we don't want to politicise football”.
Suleimani, who commanded the foreign operations arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, remains a revered figure in Iran after his 2020 assassination in a US drone strike at Baghdad airport.
Following the severance in 2016 of diplomatic ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia, Asian Champions League matches involving clubs from the two countries had been played at neutral grounds.
However, last month the AFC announced a “ground-breaking agreement” between the countries' respective federations. On September 19, Saudi Pro League side Al Nassr took on Persepolis at Azadi Stadium – the first time a Saudi club played in Iran since 2016.
Nassr captain Cristiano Ronaldo received a hugely warm welcome upon the team’s arrival in the Iranian capital.
At present, it is unclear as to whether Tuesday’s encounter between Saudi’s Al Hilal and Iran side Nassaji Mazandaran, scheduled for the same Azadi Stadium in Tehran, will go ahead as planned.