Qatar-Gulf crisis kicks off: This week in Middle East football

Qatar-Gulf crisis kicks off: This week in Middle East football
Blog: The beautiful game has been exploited this week as the Gulf diplomatic crisis hits fever pitch, writes Uri Levy
4 min read
13 Jun, 2017
Even FC Barcelona have been dragged into the Gulf regional row [AFP]
During the past week the world saw how the Gulf diplomatic crisis took over the Middle East's agenda. Football was no different, as the Qataris faced down sanctions and rumours.

It began with the sagas involving Saudi Al-Hilal and Iranian Khuzestan in Doha, and Al-Ahli Jeddah who terminated their sponsorship contract with Qatar Airways, but it did not stop there.

The Yemeni football association also joined in. Yemen's national team had been playing their "home" games in Qatar due to the ongoing civil war in their own country, but the final whistle appears to have been blown on that deal as the Gulf blockade develops, and The Reds will no longer host matches in Doha.

The following day, organisers of the planned 2017 Gulf Cup tournament - due to take place in Qatar at the end of December - began discussing whether to replace Qatar with the UAE as hosts. The tournament was expected to be a crucial dress rehearsal for the Qataris ahead of the 2022 World Cup.

This sparked a global social and conventional media discussion about whether Qatar's most-prized goal - the 2022 World Cup - may be cancelled, postponed or moved.

The Gulf crisis has been a bonus to those groups fighting against having the tournament in the country, but there are no indications from FIFA that any change is planned.

And it did not stop there. Rumours that the UAE and Saudi Arabia banned FC Barcelona shirts with Qatari sponsors (Qatar Airways & Qatar Foundation) spread fast across the internet, but all reports seem to be bogus.

By June 11, no fine, nor any conviction was listed in either country over FCB shirts. Moreover, according to a source that asked to remain anonymous, the 2016/17 shirts of the Spanish giants are being still sold in Dubai shops.

The latest update regarding the footballing aspect of the crisis also came from the UAE.
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The official Twitter of the UAEFA stated that it has requested its referees at their match against Thailand to be changed, as they were all Qataris.

Eventually FIFA agreed, and the Qatari staff were replaced with Singaporean officials.

A minute of silence or a misunderstanding?

On Thursday, Saudi Arabia visited Australia to take on the national team in Adelaide. The match itself was true thriller with the Aussies winning 3-2. Australia went up after just seven minutes as Tomi Juric scored fast. Salem al-Dawsri equalised for the Saudis, but Juric was there again to score and bring back the lead.

Saudi striker Mohammad al-Sahlawy became the top scorer of the 2018 World Cup Qualifications with 16 goals so far, after he notched the second with a beautiful touch on the stroke of half time. Australia eventually sealed the match with a belter from Tom Rogic. The Socceroos' fans celebrated in ecstasy.  

Despite the loss, the Saudis have already secured their place in the next stage. The only question is whether they will qualify directly to the finals in Russia, or will have to compete in the playoffs.

It was good football, then, but the big story of the match wasn't about the game. Before the match, Australia held a minute of silence to honour two Australian victims in the Manchester attack earlier that week.

While the Socceroos players sombrely stood in line, the Saudis were wandering about the field, warming up or practising ball control.

It sparked criticism from worldwide media networks and football fans alike, as the Saudis had not respected the victims and did not show sportsmanship. The story made huge headlines. The Saudis published an apology, and said the whole situation was a misunderstanding - but it was too little, too late, and the damage to the Saudi image was already done.

The Qatari crisis dragged with it a path of false news related to football. At one point, it wasn't clear whether any reports were genuine, or simply meant to blur reality.

One thing is sure, though - at this point - the Qatari crisis is well ingrained into the region's football scene. Football has been exploited as comfortable field to make much deeper and wider statements by the countries involved.

Tuesday night's 3-2 win for Qatar against South Korea was greatly needed to boost morale. This is one team that's had a rough week.

Uri Levy runs the popular football blog BabaGol, which covers football and politics focusing on the Middle East. Follow him on Twitter, and read his blog here