Desire to de-escalate prevails as cancelled AFC match tests Saudi-Iranian relations

Al Ittihad's match against Sepahan was called off on Monday after controversy at the stadium

Fans of Sepahan light flares and smoke in the stands after their AFC Champions League group stage soccer match against Al-Ittihad was cancelled, in Isfahan, Iran, 02 October 2023.  The match of Iranian side Sepahan against Saudi side Al-Ittihad was "cancelled due to unanticipated and unforeseen circumstances," an AFC statement reads, after Ittihad players refused to play.   EPA / PEYMAN SHAHSANAEI
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Columns of smoke rose from the stands as tens of thousands of Sepahan fans waved their yellow flags throughout the Naghsh-e-Jahan Stadium, anticipating their team’s first home game in the 2023/24 Asian Champions League.

Despite the absence of Ballon d’Or winner Karim Benzema, the presence of the likes of N’Golo Kante and Fabinho among the ranks of Monday's opponents Al Ittihad provided yet another reason for excitement for the Isfahan natives.

As kick-off approached, there was still no sign of the players coming in for their final warm-ups. The clock ticked by, but the giant Asian Football Confederation (AFC) flag was nowhere to be found and the two teams did not show up to line-up pre-match. Murmurs and rumours turned into certainty as the match officials finally announced the Group C encounter would not go ahead.

In the days since, there have been statements by the AFC, Al Ittihad, Sepahan, the Saudi Arabian Football Federation and even the Iranian foreign minister, but what remains unclear is whether the match will be replayed, and if so, whether that will be in Iran or elsewhere.

The start of the 2023/24 continental competition came at a time of unprecedented political rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, allowing teams from the two nations to play at each other’s grounds for the first time since 2017 when neutral venues ranging from the UAE to Qatar to Kuwait were introduced following the breaking of diplomatic ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Back in September, the AFC celebrated the decision, marking it with a statement on its official website, saying, “The AFC welcomes the historic move as it reflects the commitment of both the SAFF and FFIRI towards fostering closer ties between their respective footballing communities.”

Following the historic summer of transfer business in the Saudi Pro League, this represented an opportunity for Iranian fans to see some of the biggest stars in world football in their country. And despite fans being banned from attending Persepolis’ game against Al Nassr due to a previous violation by the Iranian club, the atmosphere was electric in Tehran as Cristiano Ronaldo arrived to Iran for the first time, with fans lining the streets of the Iranian capital for hours in the days before the match.

This atmosphere created plenty of positivity in social media engagement between Saudi and Iranian fans. Arabic-speaking Iranian football journalist Dawoud Igdery grew his social media following by thousands, mostly from Saudis engaging positively and following his reporting of the warm welcome Al Nassr received in Iran.

Al Ittihad refuse to take pitch in match against Iran's Sepahan

Al Ittihad refuse to take pitch in match against Iran's Sepahan

“As an Iranian journalist, I feel sad about what happened in the Sepahan vs Al Ittihad match, which caused great pain for Iranian and Saudi people,” he posted on platform X, formerly Twitter, on Monday evening, adding emojis of Saudi and Iranian flags joined by a handshake.

His post was seen over 300,000 times and received over 230 replies from Saudis, with the overwhelming sentiment expressing respect for him and denouncing the events that led to the match cancellation.

On the Saudi side, fans of various clubs commended Al Ittihad for their reported refusal to take to the pitch, describing it as a patriotic decision from the club. “As Saudis, we have always stuck to our principles,” wrote Al Hilal legend and Saudi Arabia’s all-time World Cup top scorer Sami Al Jaber on his account on X. “Thank you to Ittihad club, and I hope sport continues to be a breathing space for people, away from political contention.”

Goalkeeper Mohammed Al Deayea, who represented the country in four World Cups and spent his playing career with Al Tai and Al Hilal, posted on X, “Al Ittihad are a great club. Thanks to the nation’s club.”

Less than 24 hours later, another Saudi club was taking to the pitch in Iran, as Al Hilal faced Nassaji at the famous Azadi Stadium. Despite the palpable tension, the match went ahead with little in the way of clashes beyond the pitch.

The club president appeared in a video message with Saudi and Iranian flags behind him, welcoming “Brothers at Al Hilal club” to Iran, while several Iranian fans also held banners of Al Hilal ace Neymar and Saudi star Salem Al Dawsari.

Following their initial statement, the Saudi Football Federation (SAFF) said they would not be commenting further on the incident.

Meanwhile, Iranian foreign minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian said that he was in contact with his Saudi counterparts to make arrangements to replay the match, as a desire for de-escalation seemed to prevail, preventing the events of Monday from spilling over at a sensitive time when the relations between the two countries are finally thawing.

Updated: October 05, 2023, 6:11 AM