The players of Al-Ahli and Al-Hilal were offered the incentive by Turki Al-Sheikh, the head of the General Sports Authority, for the opening round of matches in the continental competition but while Al-Ahli beat Iran’s Tractor Sazi to land the bonus, with Mohanad Aseri netting the only goal of the match in the 67th minute, last season’s runners-up Al-Hilal could only manage a goalless draw with Al-Ain.
Al-Ahli’s game was played in Oman due to the ongoing political tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Group D matches between Iran’s Esteghlal and Saudi Arabia’s Al-Hilal will also be staged at neutral venues.
Saudi Arabia had not wanted its teams to play in Iran and despite a plea from the Iranian FA to FIFA president Gianni Infantino last week to intervene so they could host the matches, the AFC ordered the games to be played at neutral venues.
In Group A, UAE champions Al-Jazira edged out Qatar’s Al Gharafa 3-2 in Abu Dhabi in a game played out amid a political backdrop.
It was the first time that a club from Qatar had played in the UAE since Qatar was diplomatically and economically isolated by Gulf rivals in June 2017. The game drew 5,000 spectators to the Mohammed ben Zayed Stadium and was played in a relaxed atmosphere.
Romarinho, who previously played for Qatar’s El-Jaish, put Al-Jazira ahead in the 10th minute, but new signing Mehdi Taremi equalized a minute later for Al Gharafa.
UAE star Ali Mabkhout restored the home lead in the 27th minute and Ahmed Al-Attas consolidated it on 69 minutes.
A 71st-minute strike by former Dutch star Wesley Sneijder gave Al Gharafa hope but Al Jazira held on to grab three points.