A picture obtained by AFP from the Iranian news agency Tasnim on October 2, 2023, shows a bust of slain Revolutionary Guards commander Qasem Soleimani on the pitch at the Naghsh-e-Jahan Stadium in Isfahan during the AFC Champions League Group C football match between Iran's Sepahan and Saudi Arabia's Al-Ittihad. The match set to take place in the Iranian city of Isfahan "has been cancelled due to unanticipated and unforeseen circumstances", the AFC Champions League said in a statement, without elaborating. However an official with Saudi side Al Ittihad said a dispute arose after club administrators objected to a bust of Soleimani, who was killed by a US drone strike in 2020. (Photo by MORTEZA SALEHI / AFP) (Photo by MORTEZA SALEHI/AFP via Getty Images)
CNN  — 

Iranian soccer club Sepahan has been punished by the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) for displaying a bust of a divisive general, who was assassinated by the United States in 2020, which caused the cancelation of a game against a Saudi team.

Saudi team Al-Ittihad was due to play Sepahan at Naghsh-e Jahan stadium in Isfahan, Iran, in October in the Asian Champions League – an annual competition organized by the AFC – but protested the presence of a bust of Qasem Soleimani, the late commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, at the entrance of the pitch.

Soleimani is revered as a martyr by Iranian hardliners but seen in Saudi Arabia as a terrorist for having empowered Iran-backed militias in the Arab world and despised for sowing instability across the region.

On Thursday, the AFC’s Disciplinary and Ethics Committee handed down a series of punishments to Sepahan for multiple breaches of the organization’s ‘disciplinary and ethics code.’

Al-Ittihad was given a 3-0 victory after the AFC ruled that Sepahan should forfeit the fixture, while the Iranian club was also ordered to pay a fine of $200,000.

Sepahan was also banned from playing its next three matches in AFC competitions at the Naghsh-e Jahan stadium, with the AFC warning that a repeat violation “may be met with more severe punishment.”

In a statement released by Sepahan on Thursday, it said that the club “does not consider this decision to be correct in any way and considers itself justified in this case.”

The Iranian club continues its statement by highlighting a series of issues it has with the proceedings, before concluding by saying that it will appeal the case with the “competent legal authority and seriously pursue the appeal of the initial decision.”

Sepahan also says it will seek to refer the case to Switzerland’s Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) “in accordance with international regulations and will pursue its rights through that respected judicial body.”

The incident in October showed that profound differences remain between the two formerly adversarial nations despite a China-brokered agreement in March which saw Tehran and Riyadh reconcile after more than seven years of hostilities.

The Quds Force is an elite unit that handles Iran’s overseas operations – and one designated as a terrorist organization by the US and Saudi Arabia.

Over the years, Soleimani rose to prominence to become a key player in the unit and in Iran’s operations across the Middle East, which Saudi Arabia spent years fighting off. He was killed in 2020 by a US drone strike ordered by then US President Donald Trump.

Before the October fixture was set to kick off, Al-Ittihad’s players refused to take to the field after a request to remove the bust was rejected by Sepahan officials, the state-run Saudi Press Agency said, adding that referees had given Iranian authorities 30 minutes to remove it.

A picture obtained by AFP from the Iranian news agency Tasnim on October 2, 2023, shows Sepahan leaving the pitch after the cancellation of the AFC Champions League Group C football match between Iran's Sepahan and Saudi Arabia's Al-Ittihad at the Naghsh-e-Jahan Stadium in Isfahan. The match set to take place in the Iranian city of Isfahan "has been cancelled due to unanticipated and unforeseen circumstances", the AFC Champions League said in a statement, without elaborating. However an official with Saudi side Al Ittihad said a dispute arose after club administrators objected to a bust of slain Revolutionary Guards commander Qasem Soleimani. (Photo by MORTEZA SALEHI / AFP) (Photo by MORTEZA SALEHI/AFP via Getty Images)

Mohammad Reza Saket, the head of Sepahan, told Iranian state media that “the request was unexpected, unacceptable and surprising,” adding that the bust of the slain commander had been on display in the stadium for two years and that Al-Ittihad knew that and had trained on the same pitch the night before the match.

After playing three Asian Champions League Group C matches, Al-Ittihad tops the group with nine points after a trio of wins, with Sepahan in third place on four points.