Crisis infects soccer tournament as Qatar faces Saudi Arabia
By ROB HARRIS and JOHN DUERDEN
ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates (AP) Traveling to the Asian Cup should have been a simple flight lasting barely an hour for Qatar's soccer players. Instead, it involved a circuitous route to the United Arab Emirates via Kuwait, lasting more than five hours.
The journey demonstrates how the Persian Gulf diplomatic crisis is impacting sports and could have ramifications for Qatar's hosting of the 2022 World Cup. Having cut diplomatic, economic and travel ties with Qatar in June 2017, the UAE made no exemptions even to smooth the journey of one of the Asian Cup teams it is hosting. It doesn't bode well for hundreds of thousands of fans planning World Cup trips.
The diplomatic fight has affected travel and business in the region for more than a year, and the two biggest rivals will meet Thursday in a match that means much more than seeding in the tournament's knockout stage - both teams have already clinched advancement.
The players and coaches have tried to ignore the dispute, even though evidence is everywhere. Around the Sultan Bin Zayed Stadium, Qatari players walk by portraits of members of the UAE ruling family, which has tried to isolate Qatar.
"As the Qatar FA we believe that football is a message of peace," spokesman Ali Hassan Al-Salat said. "The slogan of the competition is, `Bringing Asia Together.'"
The federation has barred players from discussing anything that touches on politics, and both sides have avoided the topic.
"We are against mixing sports with politics," said Turki Al-Awad, a Saudi Arabia Football Federation board member. "It's a football game and shouldn't be anything else."
Saudi Arabia engineered the regional boycott of Qatar along with the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt. The Qataris have held firm, denying accusations that they support extremists and refusing the demands.
Soccer is not just a sideshow as the other nations squeeze Qatar. Sport has been a crucial part the pursuit of supremacy in the Persian Gulf, and the fate of Qatar's 2022 World Cup hosting and even broadcasting rights are at stake.
Qatar state-owned broadcaster beIN Sports is the exclusive Middle East rights holder of the Asian Cup. But many viewers across the region will not be watching the official broadcast featuring commentary from recently-fired Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho. Instead they will get a pirated version hosted from Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia-based BeoutQ has been broadcasting bootlegged feeds of beIN since 2017, but Saudi officials say the government does not condone the practice.
"TV rights and copyrights should be respected," Al-Awad said. "The Saudi government is working hard to prevent piracy by launching a campaign to fight against piracy of sports."
beIN published fresh evidence Wednesday of what it claims to be Saudi-backed illegal broadcasts. The Saudi government has not responded to questions about beIN's renewed push for soccer organizations to close BeoutQ. beIN also asked Italian soccer's Serie A leadership not to play its Super Cup between Juventus and AC Milan in Jeddah on Wednesday night in a protest against BeoutQ.
Bringing soccer stars to Saudi Arabia is an attempt to gain some of the international prestige Qatar has garnered hosting sports events, including the world championships of track and gymnastics.
Tiny but energy-rich, Qatar's global status was elevated in 2010 when it pulled off an improbable victory to bring the World Cup to the Middle East for the first time. Qatar has never even qualified for a World Cup but will in 2022 as host.
Winning the FIFA vote, which has remained tainted by corruption allegations, threw a spotlight on human rights and labor conditions in Qatar and across the Gulf. And the sense of regional jealousy has fueled calls from the blockading nations for Qatar to be stripped of the tournament, which seems unlikely this late.
"All of our World Cup preparations by the end of 2020 will be in place," said Nasser Al Khater, assistant secretary general of the organizing committee. "It gives us a good two years to test them and get ready for the tournament."
FIFA President Gianni Infantino has attempted to carve out a role of peacemaker. Infantino wants to use the World Cup to help reunite the region. Infantino asked the Emir of Qatar to contemplate allowing neighbors, including Saudi Arabia, to help host some matches.
"Maybe, if football makes dreams come true, in 2022 we could also experience a World Cup in Qatar as well as, why not, some games in other countries of the Arabian Gulf," Infantino said. "But this is another story, hopefully with a happy end."
So far, Qatar has refused.
"The decision will be between us and FIFA," Al Khater said. "It's not a unilateral decision."
Qatar can call on some high-profile international players, including Neymar, to champion its hosting of the World Cup. The nation owns his club team, Paris Saint-Germain. In protective hats, members of the squad toured the Al Wakra stadium this week.
Qatar's game against three-time Asian Cup winner Saudi Arabia will go some way to showing how the squad's progress as it tries to avoid being rolled over by teams more accustomed to the World Cup.
Officials from both teams said the tensions between their countries won't show up on the field.
"We never thought that we wouldn't shake hands," said Al-Salat of Qatar's soccer association. "We respect all the teams."
Harris reported from London.
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Updated January 16, 2019