As Qatar’s players emerge into Zayed Sports City Stadium in Abu Dhabi on Friday evening to face Japan in their first-ever Asian Cup final, they will not just have a chance to make soccer history. They will also have a perfect opportunity to annoy some of their neighbors — not least the host nation.
It is probable that neutral spectators in the stadium for the final, the biggest in Asian international soccer, will be cheering on Japan, the continent’s top team with four titles already to its name.
But this Qatari team seems to bask in such challenges, whether on or off the field. In Tuesday’s semifinal “The Maroons”, thrashed the United Arab Emirates 4-0 in front of the home team’s own fans, some of whom reacted by pelting the celebrating Qatari team with shoes and water bottles.
Most fans present had been handed free tickets by the Abu Dhabi Sports Council. This was ostensibly done to ensure a full house, though there were suspicions that it was intended to minimize the presence of Qatari supporters, or even Omanis who might cheer for Qatar getting into the stadium.
Not that there are many Qatari fans in the country anyway. The UAE, along with Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt, cut off diplomatic relations with Qatar in June 2017. The instigators of this so-called “Qatar Blockade”, an attempt to isolate the country, accused Doha of, among other things, supporting terrorism. Qatar denies the claims.
The effects of this have already been felt on the soccer pitch. At the Asian U19 Championships in October, Emirati players refused the customary pre-game handshake with their Qatari opponents. In the 2017 Gulf Cup, a regional competition that only went ahead because Qatar agreed to switch hosting rights to Kuwait, the Saudi and Emirati teams withdrew from press conferences due to a microphone that displayed the logo of Qatari sports channel BeIN Sports.
That channel has also been involved in another row. It owns the broadcasting rights for a number of sport events in the region and has accused BeoutQ, a Saudi-based channel, of stealing its content and illegally broadcasting it in Saudi Arabia. Such broadcasts include billions of dollars of premium sports content such as the 2018 World Cup and the English Premier League. In October the Qatari company launched a $1 billion lawsuit against Saudi Arabia.
Ahead of the 2018 Asian Champions League, the continent’s premier club competition, Saudi Arabia and the UAE requested that tournament organizers — the Asian Football Confederation — order games with Qatari teams to be played in a third country. The AFC refused.
That did not mean the issue was resolved. No direct flights between Abu Dhabi and Doha, a result of the blockade, meant that journeys between the two cities required a stopover. Instead of the usual 45 minutes, transportation to the tournament required, at minimum, a three-and-a-half hour journey.
Even so, players from Qatari club Al Gharafa did not expect an 18-hour odyssey when they went to the UAE to face Al Jazira in the Champions League last February. According to social media reports by the players, they had to camp out overnight at Muscat Airport due to claims from Abu Dhabi flight control that visibility was poor in the UAE capital and that it was not possible for the plane to land.
It is not a surprise that for the Asian Cup, few, if any fans, have made the trip to the UAE. For Qatar’s second game of the tournament against North Korea last Sunday, the only supporter in sight was a South Korean woman called Merry Lee.
Despite the lack of backing, Qatar won that match 6-0. In fact, the team has won all six of its tournament matches on the way to the final, scoring 16 goals and conceding none. As well as being by far the best record of any team, it was also the biggest surprise. The country has never been a powerhouse, has never qualified for the World Cup (its first appearance will come as World Cup hosts in 2022), and has never been so close to winning the Asian Cup. Until now.
Japan remains the favored team going into the final in terms of support at the stadium and soccer pedigree. But this Qatar team has shown time and time again that it thrives on adversity.