Soccer-Asian Champions League clash called off after Saudis refuse to take to pitch

(Reuters) - Al-Ittihad's Asian Champions League match with Iran's Sepahan was called off on Monday after the Saudi team refused to leave their dressing-room due to a statue of an assassinated Iranian general being placed at the entrance to the pitch.

The game was postponed by officials at the Naghsh-e Jahan Stadium in Isfahan, where around 60,000 fans had turned out to see Sepahan take on an Al-Ittihad starting line-up that was due to include former Premier League stars Ngolo Kante and Fabinho.

The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) said the game had been "cancelled due to unanticipated and unforeseen circumstances".

"The AFC reiterates its commitment towards ensuring the safety and security of the players, match officials, spectators, and all stakeholders involved," the body said in a statement.

"This matter will now be referred to the relevant committees."

Qasem Soleimani, a prominent general in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, was killed near Baghdad airport in a United States drone strike in January 2020 and is viewed as a martyr by the country's ruling regime.

Photographs from the stadium published on social media showed a bust of Soleimani had been placed at the entrance to the pitch and would have been in full view of the players as they exited the tunnel.

Relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia have long been strained and this year's Asian Champions League is the first since 2016 in which clubs from both nations have been permitted to play one another home and away.

Matches between clubs from the two nations were previously played on neutral territory due to security concerns.

Cristiano Ronaldo led his Al-Nassr side to Tehran two weeks ago to face Persepolis at the Azadi Stadium, although that game was played in an empty stadium due to a one-game spectator ban given to the Iranian club by the AFC due to fan behaviour.

(Reporting by Michael Church, Editing by Clare Fallon)

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