President of Iraq Football Association says his country’s soccer team will not play against the Saudi team inside Saudi Arabia in a March 28, 2017 game in the third round of the 2018 FIFA World Cup qualification games if the latter team refuses to play Iraq in a September 16 game planned to take place in Iran.
Abdul Khaliq Masood said on Wednesday that the Iraqi team, also known as Lions of Mesopotamia, favors Iran to host its home World Cup qualifiers. Nevertheless, he said, the team would face off with Saudi Arabia’s national soccer team at a third venue in case Saudi sports officials raise objections to Iran hosting the game, Arabic international newspaper Asharq al-Awsat reported.
Iranian and Saudi football federations are at loggerheads following the severance of Tehran-Riyadh diplomatic ties earlier this year.
On January 3, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir announced that Saudi Arabia was severing diplomatic relations with Iran following attacks on vacant Saudi diplomatic premises in the Iranian cities of Tehran and Mashhad during otherwise peaceful rallies to protest the execution by Saudi Arabia of prominent Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr.
A small group of people mounted the walls of the Saudi consulate in Mashhad while incendiary devices were hurled at Riyadh’s embassy in Tehran. Iranian authorities apprehended some 50 people over the acts of transgression, and condemned the violations of the diplomatic perimeters.
Iraq has landed in Group B of the third round of the 2018 FIFA World Cup qualification tournament, and is pitted against Japan, Australia, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Thailand.
Iran has been drawn in Group A, and joined South Korea, Uzbekistan, China, Qatar and Syria.
The winner and runner-up of each group, four teams in total, will qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, while the third-placed teams of each group — two teams in total — will head to the play-off round of the 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifiers.
The winner of the Asian play-off round will then face twice the fourth-placed squad in the fifth round of the Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF) qualifying games.