ADELAIDE, Australia — The Saudi Arabian Football Federation has apologized for “any offense caused” after its players declined to participate in a minute’s silence in memory of last weekend’s deadly attacks in London before the start of a World Cup qualifying match against Australia.
When the stadium announcer called for a minute’s silence Thursday night to honor the eight victims, including two Australians, the 11 Australian players on the field lined up near the center circle with arms on their teammates’ shoulders.
Their opponents from Saudi Arabia stayed on the other side, most seemingly ignoring the gesture, which sparked an immediate backlash. Video appeared to show one Saudi player bending down to tie his shoe lace during the minute of silence.
The Saudi federation statement said it “deeply regrets and unreservedly apologizes for any offense caused.”
“The players did not intend any disrespect to the memories of the victims or to cause upset to their families, friends or any individual affect by the atrocity,” the statement said. “The Saudi Arabian Football Federation condemns all acts of terrorism and extremism and extends its sincerest condolences to the families of all the victims.”
Australia won the match 3-2 to move level on points with Saudi Arabia and Japan atop the qualifying group with two games remaining.
Football Federation Australia said the Saudi team management knew about the plan to hold a minute’s silence before the match and had indicated that the players wouldn’t participate.
“Both the (Asian Football Confederation) and the Saudi team agreed that the minute of silence could be held,” the FFA said in a statement. “The FFA was further advised by Saudi team officials that this tradition was not in keeping with Saudi culture and they would move to their side of the field and respect our custom whilst taking their own positions on the field.”
Typically, representative of soccer’s world governing body, FIFA, meet with officials from both teams and the referee a day before a World Cup qualifier to discuss game-related protocol, including plans for reflections such as the minute’s silence.
There was no immediate response from FIFA or the Asian Football Confederation.
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was asked early Friday about the incident but said while the matter had been raised with him, he had not seen video.
“The whole world, the whole free world is united in condemnation of that terrorist attack and terrorism generally,” Turnbull said, without directly referencing the match. “Everybody, everyone should be united in condemnation with the terrorists and love, and sympathy and respect for the victims and their families.”
Senior Australian Labor politician Anthony Albanese described it as “a disgraceful lack of respect.”
“There is no excuse here. This isn’t about culture,” he said. “This is about a lack of respect.”
After the match, Australia, Saudi Arabia and Japan all had 16 points in qualifying Group B, although Japan had a game in hand.
Tomi Juric scored two goals and Tom Rogic added the third for Australia in Adelaide.
Salem Al Dawsari and Mohammed Al Sahlawi scored for the Saudis, who are led by former Netherlands coach Bert van Marwijk.
Australia plays at Japan on Aug. 31 and hosts Thailand on Sept. 5 in its remaining matches. In between, the Australians will play at the Confederations Cup in Russia.
The top two countries in the six-team group qualify for next year’s World Cup in Russia, with the third-place country advancing to a playoff.