A highly anticipated Asian Champions League encounter between Sepahan and Al Ittihad took an unexpected turn as the match was canceled due to a political controversy triggered by the presence of a statue of Qasem Soleimani, an Iranian military figure regarded unfavorably in Saudi Arabia.
Anticipation and Preparations
Scheduled for Monday, October 2, 2023, at 23:00 WIB, the match was initially poised to kick off at Naghsh-e-Jahan. Mirror UK reported that the stadium was packed with approximately 60,000 spectators, and the likes of N’Golo Kante and other players were present, ready for action.
Both teams had diligently conducted training sessions at the venue the day prior, with starting lineups already announced. However, a significant development changed the course of events.
The Controversial Statue
A statue depicting the upper half of Qasem Soleimani was suddenly introduced, positioned adjacent to the pitch between two reserve benches. Al Ittihad, upon noticing this new addition, promptly decided not to participate, citing the injection of political elements into a football context.
Nuno Espirito Santo’s team was seen leaving the stadium, leaving the fate of the match uncertain.
AFC’s Official Response
The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) issued an official statement addressing the situation and the subsequent cancellation of the Asian Champions League Group C match for the 2023/24 season involving Sepahan and Al Ittihad.
“The scheduled match for Group C of the 2023/24 Asian Champions League between Sepahan and Al Ittihad, set to take place at Naghsh-e-Jahan Stadium, Isfahan, has regrettably been canceled due to unforeseen circumstances,” the AFC statement read.
The statement continued, “AFC reiterates its unwavering commitment to ensuring the safety and security of all players, match officials, spectators, and stakeholders involved. The matter will now be referred to the appropriate committee for further consideration.”
Navigating Political Sensitivity in Sports
The cancellation of the Sepahan vs Al Ittihad match underscores the persistent challenge of political sensitivity within the realm of sports, where geopolitical tensions can disrupt sporting events. This incident serves as a stark reminder of the complex issues that sports sometimes grapple with when politics becomes entangled with athletic competitions.
Sports, ideally a unifying force, can occasionally become arenas for expressing political disputes. Instances like this highlight the essential role of organizations like the AFC in upholding safety, fairness, and the integrity of the game, even in the face of unforeseen political controversies.