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Iranian club fined and banned for displaying Soleimani bust

The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) has penalized the Iranian soccer club Sepahan for having a bust of the slain Iranian general Qasem Soleimani at the entrance of the pitch during a match against the Saudi club Al-Ittihad in October.

Saudi team withdrew from the match

The match, which was part of the Asian Champions League, was scheduled to take place on October 2, 2023, at the Naghsh-e Jahan Stadium in Isfahan, Iran. However, the Saudi team refused to play after seeing the bust of Soleimani, who was the commander of the Quds Force, an elite unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) that handles Iran’s overseas operations. Soleimani was killed by a US drone strike in January 2020 and is considered a martyr by Iranian hardliners but a terrorist by Saudi Arabia and the US.

The Saudi team requested that the bust be removed, but the Sepahan officials rejected the demand, saying that it was part of the structure of the stadium and had been there for two years. The referees gave the Iranian authorities 30 minutes to comply, but they did not. As a result, the Saudi team withdrew from the match and left Iran shortly after.

Iranian club fined and banned for displaying Soleimani bust

AFC ruled in favor of Al-Ittihad

The AFC Disciplinary Committee announced on Wednesday that it had ruled in favor of Al-Ittihad, awarding them a 3-0 win by default. The committee also fined Sepahan $200,000 and banned them from playing three matches at the Naghsh-e Jahan Stadium, where the incident took place. The committee said that Sepahan had violated the AFC regulations on political neutrality and respect for opponents.

The decision sparked outrage among Iranian soccer fans and officials, who accused the AFC of bias and injustice. Mohammad Reza Saket, the head of Sepahan, said that the club would appeal the decision and seek legal action. He also claimed that Al-Ittihad had trained on the same pitch the night before without any complaint and that their withdrawal was a political move to appease Israel.

Iran and Saudi Arabia have tense relations

The incident reflects the tense relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which have been rivals for regional influence and have backed opposing sides in conflicts such as Syria, Yemen, and Iraq. The two countries severed diplomatic ties in 2016 after Iranian protesters stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran following the execution of a prominent Shia cleric by Saudi Arabia.

However, in March 2023, Iran and Saudi Arabia agreed to reopen their embassies and resume diplomatic relations after holding talks in Beijing mediated by China. The two countries also expressed their willingness to cooperate on regional security and stability issues. The reconciliation was seen as a positive step towards easing tensions and preventing further escalation in the Middle East.

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