Saudi-Iran tensions overshadow Asian soccer tournaments (JMD quoted on AP)
BY JOHN DUERDEN
The political tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran may filter onto the soccer pitch in the coming weeks with teams from the two nations due to play each other in the Asian Champions League and the Asian Under-23 Championships.
Relations between the countries deteriorated sharply in early January when Saudi Arabia executed a prominent Shiite cleric and Iranian protesters responded by attacking the Saudi embassy in Tehran and a consulate in another city. Riyadh then broke off diplomatic relations with Tehran.
As the standoff has escalated, Saudi Arabia's leading soccer clubs asked the Asian Football Confederation to move Champions League matches between clubs from the two nations in February to neutral venues. Muhammad Al-Nuwaiser, the vice-president of the Saudi Arabia Football Federation, also tweeted that the protests in Iran showed that it should not host soccer games.
There are already six games scheduled between the countries in the group stage of the continent's biggest club competition and, depending on preliminary playoff results, there could be as many as eight. That leaves plenty of opportunity for tensions to spill over on the field, according to James Dorsey, an expert in Middle East soccer politics at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University.
"Football is politics and that is certainly true with regard to international matches, particularly in countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran where political control of the sport is tight," Dorsey told The Associated Press.
"Saudi Arabia, by refusing to play Asian Champions League matches (in Iran), seeks to project Iran as an insecure, unstable country," he said.
In response to the Saudi claims about Iran's inability to host Champions League matches, Iranian Football Federation President Ali Kafashian pointed out that his country has been serving as a home venue for Afghanistan and Iraq during the 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign due to instability in both of those countries.
"Iran is a safe country and if the Saudi Arabian football officials don't agree with it, (they) must give evidence," Kafashian was quoted as saying by the Tehran Times. "Saudi Arabia barred its citizens from traveling to Iran, but sport has nothing to do with politics."
The AFC said in a statement last week that it was "monitoring the situation" in both countries, but has not commented further.
Saudi Arabia and Iran's under-23 teams could also meet at the Asian Under-23 Championships, which start Tuesday in Qatar. Iran has been drawn in Group A and Saudi Arabia in Group B, meaning the teams could play in the quarterfinals if one finishes first and the other second in their respective groups.
The tournament also carries significance as it will decide which three Asian teams will go to the Rio de Janeiro Olympics this year.
The host, Qatar, is hoping for big things from its young players as it gears up to host the 2022 World Cup. Under-23 stars Mohammed Muntari and Abdelkarim Hassan have already appeared for the senior team, giving them confidence they can add the U-23 Asian title to Qatar's under-19 crown in 2014.
"Qatar is putting in a lot of effort and they are investing a lot in youth development," said the under-23 team coach, Felix Sanchez of Spain. "The players will learn a lot from these competitions. And hopefully, Qatar will reach a very good level before the World Cup in 2022."
South Korea, led by young stars Ryu Seung-woo of Bayer Leverkusen and Red Bull Salzburg's Hwang Hee-chan, will also be difficult to beat. The Koreans won the bronze medal at the 2012 London Olympics.
Japan will be led by overseas stars Takumi Minamino and Yuya Kubo, while Australia coach Aurelio Vidmar will try to qualify his team after missing out on the 2012 Olympics.