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Iran plays down football spat with Saudi

Iran’s top diplomat on Wednesday played down a spat with Saudi Arabia that prompted the cancellation of an Asian Champions League match, insisting relations with its longtime rival were improving.

The row, over a statue of assassinated Revolutionary Guards commander Qasem Soleimani in the stadium in Iran’s third city Isfahan, was the first incident to mar a surprise rapprochement between the rival Middle East powers brokered by China in March.

Saudi club Al Ittihad had refused to take to the pitch for their away game against Iran’s Sepahan FC in protest at the statue of Soleimani, who oversaw Iran’s military operations across the Middle East until his death in a targeted US drone strike in 2020.  

The Asian Football Confederation later confirmed that the fixture had been cancelled “due to unanticipated and unforeseen circumstances”.

“The foreign minister of Saudi Arabia and I were in direct contact with each other” after the incident on Monday, Iran’s top diplomat Hossein Amir-Abdollahian told reporters. 

“Relations between Tehran and Riyadh are moving in the right direction and we should not allow sports to become a political lever in the hands of either side,” he said.

Amir-Abdollahian urged the AFC “to think about this incident on a technical basis” and said he had reached agreement with the Saudi side for the game to be rescheduled.

Soleimani remains a revered figure in Iran but is a bugbear for Saudi Arabia as he oversaw Iran’s intervention in conflicts across the region for more than a decade before his assassination.

The Chinese-brokered rapprochement between the two governments has seen diplomatic relations restored, ending a seven-year rupture, and the resumption of home and away sports fixtures after playing in neutral venues since 2016.

Monday’s game would have been the second time a Saudi club had played an away fixture in Iran since the thaw in relations.

On September 19, Saudi club Al Nassr, who boast five-time Ballon d’Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo among their stars, beat Tehran club Persepolis 2-0 in the Iranian capital in the first.

Monday’s spat did not prevent another AFC fixture from going ahead in Tehran’s Azadi stadium on Tuesday. Saudi club Al Hilal, who signed Brazil star Neymar in August, beat Iran’s Nassaji Mazandaran 3-0. 

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