Diplomatic tension threatens North Korea vs Malaysia match

Geopolitical tensions can easily spill onto sports arenas in a continent as vast and as richly diverse as Asia.

The assassination of Kim Jong Nam, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's exiled half brother, in a crowded Malaysian airport last week has captivated the region and had another flow-on effect " threatening to derail an Asian Cup qualifier between North Korea and Malaysia in Pyongyang next month.

North Korea has been critical of Malaysian authorities during the investigation. Malaysia has recalled its ambassador from the North Korean capital, and the head of the Malaysian police said there was evidence the banned chemical weapon VX nerve agent was used in the murder.

Hamidin Mohd Amin, general secretary of the Football Association of Malaysia, told a news conference in Kuala Lumpur this week that he needed to discuss with the Asian Football Confederation security around the March 28 continental qualifier to see "if there's any threat to the team's safety in Pyongyang."

"If we feel it's not safe for us to be there, we will inform AFC," Hamidin said. "It's up to the AFC to decide whether to postpone the match or play it at a neutral venue if there are any concerns over the safety of our team."

There have been plenty of examples of international issues causing games to be played in a neutral country " some as recently as this week when the Asian Champions League kicked off.

Saudi Arabia and Iran's lack of a diplomatic relationship means that for the second successive year, meetings between clubs from the two nations in the continentl championship are taking place in a third country.

Saudi Arabia broke off relations with Iran in January 2016 following demonstrations outside its embassy in Tehran, sparked by a Saudi execution of a religious cleric. Saudi teams refused to travel to Iran, and that led to Iranian clubs threatening to withdraw from the Asian Champions League.

The situation is ongoing. On Tuesday, Persepolis of Tehran and Riyadh's Al Hilal, two of Asia's traditional powerhouses, played out a 1-1 draw in Muscat, Oman. Reports in the Saudi Arabia media claimed that Persepolis increased the price of tickets for Saudi fans by five times. The return match, on neutral ground but "hosted" by Al Hilal, will take place on April 24.

James Dorsey, an expert on soccer politics in the Middle East and a senior fellow at S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University, said he doesn't expect the Saudi-Iran situation to change any time soon.

"There is no indication that this will change given Saudi Arabia's refusal to enter into talks on terms that would be acceptable to Iran," Dorsey told The Associated Press, saying the AFC should not have agreed to a third country venue in the first place.

Relations between China and Hong Kong were also in the headlines this week.

There has been tension between Hong Kong and China after pro-democracy protests on the streets of the former British colony in 2014. In qualification for the 2018 World Cup, the Hong Kong Football Association was fined twice by world governing body FIFA after fans booed China's national anthem.

Asian soccer made history on Wednesday when 28-year-old Chan Yuen-ting, the first woman to coach a club in a senior continental championship, went head-to-head with World Cup winner Luiz Felipe Scolari in the Asian Champions League. Chan coached Eastern SC to the Hong Kong championship, earning her team a place against Chinese powerhouse Guangzhou Evergrande, coached by Scolari.

Barely any Eastern SC fans made the 130-kilometer (80-mile) trip to Guangzhou's Tianhe Stadium top see the Chinese Super League team win 7-0.

The Chinese media mentioned security concerns, while Eastern said the lack of tickets was because of an administrative error. Fans from Hong Kong who had bought tickets were given refunds.

Competition rules state that at least 5 percent of tickets must be made available to fans of the visiting team. The AFC released a statement to say that no rules had been broken.

"The Match Commissioner has confirmed that there has been no breach of competition rules by either the host team or the host member association, as Guangzhou Evergrande offered Eastern SC a ticket allocation for the AFC Champions League match."

This story has been automatically published from the Associated Press wire which uses US spellings

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