The 2019 edition of the AFC Asian Cup has seen a few political rivals come face to face on the football field. Be it Iran taking on Iraq or be it Jordan facing Syria, UAE 2019 has been a theatre where many such plays have been performed. But none could take the limelight from one of the most politically charged encounter when Saudi Arabia took on Qatar in what was the final group game of the competition here.
To add some background, Qatar is ‘struggling’ through a Saudi-led diplomatic and economic boycott of the country, with the primary backing of Bahrain and the UAE. The past 18 months have seen this blockade effect almost all aspects of life, including football. So much so that a flight from Mumbai to Doha can now take you around 4-4.5 hours, instead of 3.5 hours, as the carriers are forced to take Pakistani and Iranian airspace to reach Qatar.
Cut to the present: the Qatari team is under tightened security in the UAE. While all the teams have been assigned two police vehicles as their escorts, on Thursday the Qatar team bus rolled into the Zayed Sports City stadium with five police vehicles accompanying them. This security has also extended to when and where the Qatari players can venture on their downtime.
However, one aspect of the game that had a direct consequence on Thursday’s tie and was very much visible on Thursday, that is the usual noise, colour and fan support, something that the game thrives on, was restricted to just one side – the Saudi side.
Pre-match reports suggested that the Saudi FA had purchased some 20,000 tickets to distribute among the fans, and so it was no surprise when almost 90 per cent of the 17,000-odd inside the huge 43,000-seater stadium was cheering for the Green Falcons. The other 10 per cent came via a surprising band of supporters – perhaps 50 or so - that had driven across from neighbouring Oman to offer Qatar their backing as ‘neutral football fans’.
But none this seemed to bother Qatar went about their business is some manner to notch up a 2-0 win at the end of the 90. The skippers refused to shake hands at the toss, Qatar’s every attacking move was booed and, noticeably, during the playing of the national anthem.
Though their head coach Felix Sanchez would admit that such a thing was disappointing to see, a formal complaint to the AFC was, however, out of his hands. “People have the right to do whatever they think, I think it’s not nice but what can I do because from our perspective we want to respect everyone,” he said post the game.
“Of course, it’s nice to have people supporting you in this kind of environment but the players are professionals and so they need to be able to play with people supporting you and without.”