Qatar boycott: ‘neutral’ Kuwait to host Gulf nations on football pitch

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Qatar players celebrate a goal against South Korea in a World Cup qualifying match in Doha, on June 13, 2017. Photo: Reuters/ Ibraheem Al Omari

The Gulf Cup is not a soccer tournament that usually makes many headlines outside the region. There will be significant attention paid to the 2017 edition, however – not least because it did not look as if it was going to go ahead at all. 

This biennial tournament, featuring the eight best nations from West Asia (minus Iran, which does not participate), will take place in Kuwait, a country that had been – until last week – banned from international soccer since October 2015.

That wasn’t the stumbling block to the competition going ahead, though. The problem – and it is was a big one – was that Qatar had been due to host. Since June, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain have adopted a diplomatic boycott of that nation, accusing it of (among other grievances) supporting terrorism, a charge fiercely denied by Doha. 

The trio also banned their citizens from visiting Qatar, and with none of their football associations responding to requests to confirm their participation by November 30, it was expected the 2017 Gulf Cup would be have to be canceled. For Saudi Arabia – and to a lesser extent the UAE – such a cancellation would have been, in soccer terms, a major headache.

In September, the Saudis qualified for the 2018 World Cup, their first appearance since 2006. No sooner had the celebrations died down than head coach Bert van Marwijk, who took his native Netherlands to the final of the 2010 World Cup, was released by the Saudi Football Association and replaced by Edgardo Bauza, who had been fired by Argentina in April.

After 69 days and five friendly games, Bauza in turn was fired and replaced by another Argentinian, Juan Antonio Pizzi, at the end of November. Pizzi had coached Chile to a stunning triumph in the 2016 Copa America, South America’s regional tournament, but failed to take the team to the 2018 World Cup. Now he will go with Saudi Arabia.

He has just six months to prepare before his side faces World Cup hosts Russia in the tournament’s opening game, in Moscow, on June 14. For a completely new coach, that is no time at all. The “Green Falcons” are in need of some soccer under their new boss. The Gulf Cup may not be the highest level of soccer in the world but it offers coach and players their only chance of some competitive action in a tournament setting before the World Cup.

The Gulf Cup may not be the highest level of soccer in the world but it offers coach and players their only chance of some competitive action in a tournament setting before the World Cup

Meanwhile, the United Arab Emirates didn’t qualify for Russia 2018 but are hosting the 2019 Asian Cup in January. “The Whites” are also in need of competitive tests.

There was, then, a real desire to play the tournament – in any country but Qatar, of course. The visit of FIFA president Gianni Infantino to Kuwait early this month presented a perfect opportunity. The Italian was there to announce that the international ban on Kuwait – imposed because of governmental interference in the running of the game – was being lifted.

The cherry on top was assuming hosting duties from Qatar. “I would like to congratulate and thank the Qatari football authorities for their honorable gesture,” Infantino said. “It is in line with Qatar’s commitment as the host country of the 2022 FIFA World Cup.”

This particular pitfall may have been avoided but there are others ahead. The 2017 Asian Champions League, the annual pan-continental club competition, featuring 32 teams from the top nations such as South Korea, Japan, China, Australia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and others, could be a tougher knot to unravel.

Four of the eight groups, which kick off in February, could feature Qatari teams taking on sides from either the UAE or Saudi Arabia, or both. The Asian Football Confederation has expressed a wish for the respective nations to allow the games to go ahead on a home and away basis. As it stands however, it looks as if they will be played in a neutral country.

Because of an absence of diplomatic relations, Iranian and Saudi clubs already travel to third countries to contest meetings with each other. Clearly, the 2018 continental tournament could become quite complicated, logistically.

In terms of Qatar, there may be some kind of rapprochement before February. But, equally, there may not be, and the issue has the potential to become increasingly sticky as far as sport is concerned.

The 2017 Gulf Cup will take place in Kuwait between December 22 and January 5. 

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