Qatar coach Felix Sanchez has vowed to “isolate” his players from politics at the Asian Cup, which is taking place in the United Arab Emirates during a diplomatic crisis.
The tournament, which concludes on February 1, represents the first visit by the Qatari national side to the UAE since the beginning of a row that has transformed the Gulf and left Doha cut off from its neighbouring former allies.
Since June 2017, the UAE and other regional powers have imposed a boycott on Qatar, accusing it of backing terrorism and being too close to Iran.
Two of the other nations who have enforced the boycott also have teams in the tournament, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.
Qatar denies the charges and says its neighbors are seeking regime change in Doha.
With the dispute now into its 19th month, the Asian Cup is the most high-profile sporting competition so far between the former allies turned bitter rivals.
And nothing is likely to be more highly-charged than the meeting between Saudi and Qatar in a Group E match in Abu Dhabi on January 17.
As if the on-pitch weight of expectation surrounding Qatar’s young team ahead of hosting the 2022 World Cup was not enough, now they have to navigate a delicate off-field situation.
Sanchez though has vowed to concentrate solely on football. “This [political situation] is something we’ve discussed with the players,” he told AFP.
“They are very conscious and I am convinced that during the competition they will be able to maintain their focus on the sport and to isolate ourselves from the rest of it all.”
The team arrived in UAE on Saturday, having to fly via Kuwait in the first sign this is no ordinary trip – a ban on direct flights has been imposed against Doha by the UAE, Saudi and Bahrain.
A leading Qatari official and tournament organiser was earlier allegedly barred from entering the UAE on his first attempt, though officials in Abu Dhabi disputed this.
Saoud al-Mohannadi eventually entered the Emirates on Friday. But Qatar-based journalists also claim they were not allowed into the UAE to cover the tournament, after allegedly being kept waiting at Dubai airport for 13 hours before returning to Doha.
Qatari domestic sides who have played in the UAE or Saudi in the AFC Champions League have previously spoken of delays at airport immigration and comments about Qatar, or encountered rival captains refusing to shake hands before the match.
However, goalkeeper Saad al-Sheeb said the players would remain unaffected. “In the end this is football,” he said. “We just control ourselves and play football.”
On the pitch, Qatar have shown a distinct improvement since Spaniard Sanchez took charge in 2017.
Initially seen as a stop-gap appointment at the end of a failed World Cup qualification campaign, the 43-year-old has transformed the team.
He has placed emphasis on young, largely Qatari-born players – rather than imported stars – who have progressed through the Aspire Academy, an expensively-built Doha training centre which seeks to hothouse local talent.
These include forward Akram Afif, the first Qatari to play in Spain’s La Liga, and defender Abdulkarim Hassan, just voted the AFC 2018 player of the year.
In November, Qatar achieved its most notable international victory, beating Switzerland 1-0 in Lugano.
The average age of Qatar’s starting line-up in Switzerland was 24 years and 195 days, and 13 of the 25 players who travelled to Europe were Aspire graduates.
Sanchez is proving a unique problem for Qatar football association bosses who like to hire and fire coaches.
Since the beginning of the century Qatar has hired 15 separate coaches, and one of those twice, as they desperately seek to put the team on the world stage.
Sanchez has worked with the Qatari players at every level from the academy through the Under-19s, Under-20s, Under-23s and now the full team.
It is the beginning of a massive year for Sanchez and Qatar, who will also play in the Copa America later in 2019.
In an Asian Cup group also consisting of Lebanon and North Korea, a resurgent “al-Annabi” (the Maroons) will be confident of reaching the knockouts.
It is the 10th time they have qualified for the Asian Cup but have never progressed further than the quarter-finals. This time though they have a lot to prove.
“I certainly nominate Qatar to be the dark horse of the tournament,” said Hassan.
When the tournament ends with the final in Abu Dhabi, the sports headlines are likely to be focused on continental giants such as Japan, South Korea, Australia and Iran.
Ahead of the big kick-off, however, the new boys are enjoying their time in the limelight. The expansion of the quadrennial tournament from 16 teams back in 2015 to 24 means eight more nations in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and many more stories.
Yemen are among the debutants and the tournament offers a rare chance for the nation to make international headlines for something other than the armed conflict that has devastated the country since 2015. Football has understandably taken a back seat with the domestic league suspended, but the national team is well-organized under Slovak coach Jan Kocian.
In Syria, the talk is about putting a smile on the faces of fans who make the journey to the UAE as well as those left at home. Unlike Yemen however, the Syrians have realistic ambitions of hanging around the host cities of Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Sharjah and Al Ain until late in January.
Flattered to deceive
Defensively sound with dangerous strikers, Syria have never made it past the first round before, but anything less than last eight would be disappointing. The opening group game with Palestine, in a second appearance, will be crucial for both teams as well as an important opportunity for feature writers.
Kyrgyzstan are the last new team, taking Central Asia’s contingent to three. Turkmenistan will not go far, which means the region’s biggest hope is Uzbekistan. The White Wolves have flattered to deceive in the past, but the talent is always there and under new Argentine coach Hector Cuper, perhaps the belief will also be present.
There will be more interest in Southeast Asia’s three hopefuls. Vietnam are fresh and full of excitement after winning the region’s biennial title in December. If the scenes of celebration in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi were something to behold, then it would be nothing compared to what would happen if the talented Golden Stars go far in the UAE.
Thailand see themselves as the ASEAN top dogs and there is a demand for a place in the knockout stage too.
The Philippines are there for the first time. Kicking off against the mighty South Korean side will give a fine welcome to the top table of Asian football. The Philippines should be helped by having Sven-Goran Eriksson at the helm. The former England boss is one of a number of high-profile tacticians at the tournament.
The Swede will lock horns with Marcello Lippi. The Italian, who led his homeland to the 2006 World Cup title, has struggled in charge of China in his two years in charge and there has been little evidence of his stardust. The 70-year-old is set to return to Europe when the tournament ends. With China’s recent poor form, fans at home don’t expect much.
With only eight teams being eliminated in the group stage, it is unlikely that any major names will fall by the wayside and fans may have to wait until the quarter-finals before the big boys start to meet.
South Korea have the biggest star in Asia in Son Heung-min. The Tottenham Hotspur attacker will miss the first two games, but should be ready for the knockout stages. If he can get the right support from his team-mates, a first title since 1960 could be on the cards.
Japan will have a say as they search for a fifth title. The team has said its goodbyes to stalwarts such as Keisuke Honda and Makoto Hasebe after the 2018 World Cup and then did not call up big names such as Shinji Kagawa and Shinji Okazaki. But there is still plenty of talent.
The same is true of Iran, Asia’s top-ranked team in the world, according to FIFA, and they have the overall strength to reflect that. With experienced coach Carlos Queiroz in place since 2011, there will never be a better time for Iran to win their first continental title since the seventies.
Australia are defending champions, but have some injury issues. Defending the title would be a more impressive achievement than winning it back in 2015.
Hosts United Arab Emirates have not impressed under their Italian coach Alberto Zaccheroni and the tournament needs the team to inspire and excite the fans.
Saudi Arabia are another outside bet and are still basking in winning their final World Cup game against Egypt last June. The 2022 World Cup hosts Qatar would not have been expected to be a contender a few months ago, but a recent win over Switzerland has changed that a little.
Expect to see the big boys lift the trophy, but there will be plenty of attention given to some of the new names in the opening week or two.