Iran could pull out from Asian Champions League over row with Saudi Arabia

Iran could withdraw its clubs from the Asian Champions League over row with Saudi Arabia.

Iran may withdraw its teams from Asia’s biggest club tournament if they are blocked from hosting matches against Saudi Arabian clubs due to the breakdown in relations between the regional rivals, an official with Iranian football champions Sepahan said.

Four Saudi clubs complained to the Asian Football Confederation last month that it was unsafe for them to play Asian Champions League matches in Iran. The AFC is considering having the matches played on neutral territory.

“I hope there will be a resolution, but we are considering to withdraw from the Champions League if they insist on a third place (neutral venue),” Sepahan team manager Rassol Khorvash told Reuters on Monday.

Saudi Arabia cut all ties with Iran last month after its embassy in Tehran was attacked following Saudi’s execution of a prominent Shiite cleric.

The AFC said last month that if “normal relations” had not resumed by March 15, fixtures between the two countries’ clubs would be played at neutral venues.

“We are waiting to see what the AFC decides,” Khorvash told Reuters. “All the managers of the clubs had a meeting and this was one of the ideas discussed.”

Khorvash said the three Iranian clubs in this year’s ACL – Sepahan, Tractor Sazi and Isfahan-based Zob Ahan – had also spoken with the Iranian Football Federation and the Foreign Ministry about the matter.

The AFC last month pushed back six group-stage Saudi-Iran fixtures to allow more time for independent evaluations on safety and security issues between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

But it dismissed a motion from the UAE Football Association to move Emirati club fixtures out of Iran, and Khorvash said the Saudi complaint should also be rejected.

“They are looking for excuses, whatever politically happened should not get involved with the sport,” he said.

“We do not have any problem to host them, we have been hosting them for many years and never ever anything happened to them, nor any Arab country or any other club in the world or national team coming to Iran.”

Saudi Arabian giants Al Hilal dispute that, however. The 13-times domestic champions, twice winners of the Champions League in its former guise, the Asian Club Championship, said they had problems last year after playing a match away to Iran’s Foolad Khuzestan.

Media reported at the time that police arrested several fans after clashes between local supporters of the visiting Saudi team and a group of fans of the home team.

“Then this year there’s been the political issues between the two countries and we think it’s more dangerous than last year,” team spokesman Sami Abu Khudair told Reuters.

The president of the Iran Football League Organisation, Mehdi Taj told Press TV last month that Al Hilal had previously protested over alleged racist chanting when they played in Tehran and complained that their water bottles had been spiked in another match in Isfahan.

Saudi Arabia had a World Cup qualifying match moved from the Palestinian territories to Jordan last year following a row involving Fifa and the AFC. Al Hilal’s Khudair said he wanted his side’s May 3 Group C fixture at Tractor Sazi moved to “Qatar, Oman or wherever”.

Tractor director Majid Abbasi expressed his disappointment and questioned whether the Saudis were breaching the rules of world governing body Fifa regarding political interference in the sport.

“This is not an issue about if the country is safe. This is about politics,” he told Reuters.

“Our Saudi counterparts, it’s quite a political issue, interfering into sports, which is not allowed by Fifa.”

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