Iran football fans chant 'death to the dictator' after bust used to intimidate Saudi opposition

Bust of Qassim Soleimani - Iran football crowd turns on regime after bust used to intimidate Saudi opposition
Qassim Soleimani was former Revolutionary Guards commander and killed by a US drone strike in 2020 - AFP/Morteza Salehi

Iranian football fans chanted “death to the dictator” at a game that was forced to be cancelled after the Saudi Arabian opposition refused to play with a bust of a former Revolutionary Guards commander on the field.

Spectators were also heard shouting “we don’t want politicised football” as they turned on the regime in anger.

The match between Iran’s Sepahan FC and Saudi’s Al Ittihad FC was amid a dust-up over a statue of slain commander Qassim Soleimani.

An official with Saudi side Al-Ittihad, who count French international Karim Benzema among their players, said a dispute arose after club administrators objected to a bust of Soleimani, who was killed by a US drone strike in 2020.

Soleimani commanded the foreign operations arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and remains a revered figure in Iran following his 2020 assassination. He was declared a terrorist by the US.

The dispute comes one month after Saudi Arabia and Iran announced a “groundbreaking” deal to resume home-and-away football matches between club sides after seven years of competing in neutral venues.

That agreement was the latest sign of rapprochement stemming from a surprise China-brokered deal announced in March that saw the long-time rivals agree to restore diplomatic relations and reopen their respective embassies following a seven-year rupture.

Fans at the Sepahan and Al-Ittihad match
The match was one of the first to be held in Iran following the thawing in relations between the two Middle East countries - AFP/Morteza Salehi

Iran’s official news agency IRNA shared footage on Monday of the newly appointed Saudi ambassador arriving at the stadium in Isfahan ahead of the match.

Cristiano Ronaldo’s Saudi club Al-Nassr played a match in Tehran on September 19, the first time a Saudi club had played in Iran since 2016. The Portugese star received a rapturous welcome, with large crowds lining the streets and shouting, “Ronaldo! Ronaldo!”

Neymar’s Saudi club Al-Hilal was scheduled to play on Tuesday against Iranian side Nassaji Mazandaran. There was no immediate word on Monday as to whether the match would go ahead.

At Monday’s game an Al-Ittihad official said: “The club administrators found a bust of Qasem Soleimani in the walkway to the pitch. It’s a pure football game and [the bust’s] presence is totally irrelevant,” the official said.

“We asked them to remove it before going to the pre-game warm-up and they didn’t remove it. The team went back to the lockers.”

‘It was Al-Ittihad making excuses’

The official said the two sides then met with Asian Football Confederation (AFC) representatives to determine if the match would be rescheduled.

IRNA reported that Monday’s match had been cancelled “by the decision of the referee”, without giving a reason.

Mohammad Reza Saket, chairman of Sepahan, told Iranian state television that his side would “immediately complain to the AFC” about the incident.

“The request of the Ittihad team was outside of sports customs and against the usual principles,” he said.

The stadium in Isfahan “has hosted dozens of international games with the same appearance,” he added. “The Ittihad team had trained yesterday with the same conditions and the existing design of the stadium and they also thanked the Sepahan team.”

The local news agency Tasnim said the statue of Soleimani was “part of” the stadium and had no connection to the match.

“Given that situation, what happened tonight with the Saudi team leaving the field was just (them) making excuses,” it said.

The Saudi state-affiliated Al-Ekhbariya channel reported on Monday night that Ittihad had left Iran for Saudi Arabia.

Broaden your horizons with award-winning British journalism. Try The Telegraph free for 1 month, then enjoy 1 year for just $9 with our US-exclusive offer.