While the 2016 AFC Champions League is already underway, controversy is brewing between West Asian clubs like never before.
Just weeks before fixtures between clubs from Iran and Saudi Arabia were scheduled to take place, Saudi officials sought to avoid playing in Iran due to heightened diplomatic tension between the two countries.
“We don’t feel safe playing in Iran and ask the AFC to set upcoming games in a neutral pitch such as Qatar,” the KFA said at the time. Their complaints were soon backed by their Persian Gulf allies such as the UAE, whose clubs’ matches in Iran were played as scheduled after the AFC rejected their own request for relocation.
UAE’s Al Nasr travelled to Isfahan to play Sepahan on February 23, with the hosts winning 2-0 in a match that ended without safety issues. In Group C, Tractor Sazi won at home against Al Jazira, another UAE team, in another incident-free fixture.
As Iranian and Saudi officials argue over the need for safety measures, the AFC has postponed matches between the two sides until later this month with a final decision scheduled to be announced on March 15.
While Iran football officials await the decision, Sepahan have threatened to pull out of the tournament if the confederation rules in favor of the Saudis. Yet it’s clear that in light of a lack of incidents in Iranian-hosted matches with Persian Gulf clubs, a ruling in favour of Saudi Arabia would be unfair on the part of the AFC. The potential withdrawal of the reigning Iran Pro League champions and 2007 ACL runners-up would only damage the image of the tournament and Asian football.
If the AFC does rule against Saudi’s complaint, matches between sides from the two countries will become intensely-contested affairs. However, it would be a bold statement from the AFC reaffirming that football is separate from politics. Even if a political firestorm erupts in Middle East, West Asian football clubs are surely capable of playing their competitive games and shaking hands at the end of the match. It is now up to the AFC to allow them to do so.