DUBAI, United Arab Emirates - A Saudi soccer team refused to play a match in Iran on Monday because of the presence of busts of a slain Iranian general placed on the sidelines, Saudi state media reported.
The Saudi Al Ittihad club was scheduled to play Iran's Sepahan in the Asian Champions League, one of several matches made possible by a recent diplomatic rapprochement between the longtime Mideast rivals that has recently come under strain.
The Saudi team did not take to the field because of busts of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who commanded Iran's elite Quds Force before he was killed in a U.S. drone strike in neighboring Iraq in January 2020, and other political banners, Saudi Arabia's Al Ekhbariya TV reported.
Soleimani was seen as playing a key role in arming, training and leading armed groups across the region, including fighters from the Houthi rebel group in Yemen. Saudi Arabia has been at war with the Iran-aligned rebels in Yemen since 2015.
A statue of slain Iranian general Qassem Soleimani is displayed at Naghsh-e-Jahan stadium in the central city of Isfahan, Iran, Oct. 2, 2023, in this photo provided by Tasnim News Agency.
Three busts of Soleimani had been placed along the sidelines for the teams to walk past on their way out of the tunnel. After around 30 minutes of delay, the Saudi Arabian champion team, which had selected stars such as N'Golo Kante and Fabinho, signed from Chelsea and Liverpool respectively in the summer, left the Naghsh-e-Jahan Stadium where an estimated 60,000 fans were waiting.
Videos circulating on social media appeared to show angry Iranian fans chanting that politics should be kept out of soccer. Iranian media reported that the busts of Soleimani had been placed there three years ago, and that Al Ittihad had practiced in the stadium Sunday.
Al Ekhbariya later ran footage of the Saudi team at the Isfahan airport, saying they were headed home.
The league said the Group C match was canceled 'due to unanticipated and unforeseen circumstances,' without elaborating.
'The AFC reiterates its commitment towards ensuring the safety and security of the players, match officials, spectators, and all stakeholders involved. This matter will now be referred to the relevant committees,' it said in a statement.
There was no official comment from Saudi Arabia or Iran.
Iran's ruling clerics and their supporters hail Soleimani as a hero because of his leading role in military operations against the United States, the Islamic State group and other perceived enemies. Iran launched a barrage of missiles at U.S. bases in Iraq after he was killed and has vowed to take further actions to avenge his death.
As well as the insurgents in Yemen, Soleimani also aided Shiite militias in Iraq, the Lebanese Hezbollah, and fighters in Syria and the Palestinian territories.
Western nations considered Soleimani a terrorist who sowed instability across the region.
The soccer tournament, which features 40 teams from around Asia, is the first since 2015 to see Saudi Arabian and Iranian teams play home and away games on each other's soil. After diplomatic relations between Tehran and Riyadh were broken in 2016, games usually took place in neutral venues.
Players leave the pitch after the cancellation of the football match between Iran's Sepahan and Saudi Arabia's Al Ittihad at the Naghsh-e-Jahan Stadium in Isfahan, Oct. 2, 2023, in this picture obtained by AFP from the Iranian news agency Tasnim.
Iranian fans had thrilled at the arrival of Cristiano Ronaldo and other soccer stars who have been drawn to Saudi clubs over the past year by lavish contracts.
The two countries, which have long backed opposite sides in the region's conflicts, restored diplomatic relations earlier this year in an agreement brokered by China. That raised hopes that the devastating war in Yemen, which has been winding down in recent years, might finally come to an end.
But tensions rose again last week after an attack blamed on the Houthi rebels killed four soldiers who were patrolling Saudi Arabia's southern border with Yemen. The soldiers were from Bahrain, a close Saudi ally, and Bahrain blamed the Houthis, who have not publicly acknowledged the attack.
Yemen's war began in 2014 when the Houthis swept down from their northern stronghold and seized the capital, Sanaa, along with much of the north. A Saudi-led coalition intervened in 2015 to try to restore the internationally recognized government to power.
The fighting soon devolved into a stalemated proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, causing widespread hunger and misery in Yemen, which even before the conflict had been the Arab world's poorest country. The war has killed more than 150,000 people, including fighters and civilians, and created one of the world's worst humanitarian disasters, killing tens of thousands more.
Last month, Saudi Arabia welcomed a Houthi delegation for peace talks, saying the negotiations had 'positive results.' A U.N.-brokered cease-fire that took effect in April 2022 largely halted the violence, and the relative calm continued even after it expired last October.