Football and the Saudi-Iranian détente

Ahmed Mustafa , Tuesday 3 Oct 2023

A cancelled football match between Saudi Arabia and Iran could cloud the reconciliation process between the two countries, writes Ahmed Mustafa

Qasem Soleimani
The bust of slain Revolutionary Guards commander Qasem Soleimani on the pitch at the Naghsh-e-Jahan Stadium in Isfahan (photo: AFP)


A Saudi football team refused to play a match in Iran on Monday because of the presence of statues of a slain Iranian general at the side of the tunnel onto the pitch.

The Saudi Al-Ittihad Club was scheduled to play Iran’s Sepahan in the Asian Champions League, one of several matches made possible by the recent diplomatic rapprochement between the longtime rivals.

There was no official statement from Riyadh or Tehran, but the football body organising the regional tournament, the Asian Football Federation (AFC), said the Group C match was cancelled “due to unanticipated and unforeseen circumstances” without elaborating further.

“The AFC reiterates its commitment towards ensuring the safety and security of the players, match officials, spectators, and all the stakeholders involved. This matter will now be referred to the relevant committees,” a statement said.

Members of the Saudi team refused to leave their dressing room in protest at the three statues of General Qassem Suleimani and “other political banners” placed on their way to the pitch, the Saudi media reported.

Suleimani was the commander of the Al-Quds Brigade of the paramilitary Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and was killed in a US drone strike near the Iraqi capital Baghdad in January 2020.

He is seen as having played a key role in arming, training, and leading armed groups across the Middle East, including fighters from the Houthi rebel group in Yemen. Saudi Arabia has been at war with the Iran-aligned rebels in Yemen since 2015.

The Asian Champions League tournament, which features 40 teams from across 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 off in 2016, games usually took place in a third-country venue.

Last month, the Saudi Al-Nasr Club, which includes the Portuguese international Cristiano Ronaldo, was the first Saudi team to play in Iran this season when it beat the Iranian Persepolis Club.

Iranian fans were thrilled at the arrival of Ronaldo in their country, and more than 60,000 spectators turned up at the Naghsh-e Jahn Stadium in Isfahan on Monday to see Al-Ittihad stars like former Chelsea player N’Golo Kante and former Liverpool player Fábio Henrique Tavares (Fabinho), both bought in the summer as part of a Saudi drive to sign up famous football stars for local teams.

Videos from the stadium circulating on social media appeared to show angry Iranian fans chanting that politics should be kept out of football. The Iranian media reported that the statues of Suleimani had been placed there three years ago, and that Al-Ittihad had practised at the stadium on Sunday.

The sports détente is seen as another step in normalising relations between the two countries following the recent restoration of diplomatic relations. Relations were severed in 2016 after militant groups from the IRGC attacked the Saudi Embassy in Tehran following the Saudi hanging of a Shiite cleric.

The Chinese-brokered agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran earlier this year has paved the way for more steps to restore normal relations in a move also anticipated to help end the more than eight-year war in Yemen.

Last month, Saudi Arabia welcomed a Houthi delegation for peace talks, saying that the negotiations had had “positive results.” A UN-brokered ceasefire that took effect in April last year largely halted the violence, and the relative calm continued even after it expired last October.

But that calm was disturbed last week after an attack blamed on the Houthi rebels killed four Bahraini soldiers who were patrolling Saudi Arabia’s southern border with Yemen.

From the beginning of the talks to restart relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran, it was clear that some factions in both countries are opposed to the reconciliation. Hardliners in Iran, especially the IRGC, are not enthusiastic about the process, and though Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi is himself considered to be a hardliner he has been adopting a pragmatic policy approved by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

This has been met by a similar pragmatism from Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman. Khamenei holds ultimate authority in Iran, and the IRGC is under his direct control and will not disobey policies sanctioned by the supreme leader.

Despite the media coverage, some analysts are downplaying the impact of the match cancellation on the reconciliation between Riyadh and Tehran. “The two countries are in rapprochement mode, so I don’t think they are going to let an incident like this get in the way of the policies of the state,” Oxford University academic Andrew Hammond told Al-Ahram Weekly.

The attack on the southern Saudi border would have been a more serious issue than the match cancellation. But it seems that the pragmatic leaderships of both countries are determined not to let hardliners sabotage their policy.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 5 October, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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