Football is politics, whether you like it or not. Karim Benzema-led Al Ittihad refused to play the AFC Champions League game vs. Sepahan. So what happened? The issue surrounds a Kassem Suleimani statue on the sidelines at Naghsh-e-Jahan Stadium in Isfahan, Iran.
Fans and players of the Saudi Arabian club jeered at the presence of the offensive Suleimani statue, which the AFC Champions League deemed propaganda. The Saudi FA ordered Al Hilal and, subsequently, Neymar-led Al Hilal to exit the country and return to Jeddah immediately.
The AFC (Asian Football Confederation) promptly stated: “The AFC reiterates its commitment towards ensuring the safety and security of the players, match officials, spectators, and all stakeholders involved.”
Just take a look at the electric atmosphere. What could've been an entertaining group stage match?
Who is Kassem Suleimani, and why would Al Ittihad refuse to play?
Kassem Suleimani was an Iranian military officer deemed a terrorist by the United States in 2005. In 2011, he orchestrated a plot to murder the Saudi ambassador Adel Al Jubeir in Washington, DC. So, a bust honoring Suleimani in front of Saudi Arabians is deeply controversial, to say the least.
An American drone strike killed the so-called second-most powerful man in Iran back in 2000.
Even Sepahan fans adamantly disagreed about the Suleimani statue saying, “we don't want politics in sports.” Some home fans threw objects at the statue.
The AFC must decide which club withdrew the match and potentially deduct -3 important points. Still, a bold statement from Al Ittihad.