Soccer breaks through the blockade of Qatar

Soccer breaks through the blockade of Qatar
The Champions League of the Asian Football Confederation could be an opportunity for mutual respect amid the blockade on Qatar, writes Anthony Harwood.
4 min read
31 Jan, 2018
The 2018 AFC Champions League is the 37th edition of Asia's premier soccer tournament [Getty]
For almost eight months it has been a tense standoff with neither side giving any quarter.

In one corner you have Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, accusing their enemy of cosying up to Iran and supporting terrorism.

In the other is Qatar, the Gulf peninsula state proudly asserting its right to stand in the world as an independent, sovereign nation.

For 240 long days Saudi Arabia and the UAE have banned their citizens from travelling to Qatar, and stopped Qataris coming the other way.

Families who for years have been marrying across the borders which divide them were suddenly kept apart.

In one case, four sons from Saudi Arabia were not allowed to retrieve the body of their father who had collapsed and died in Qatar just after the blockade was announced.

Despite Qatar's refusal to cave in to Riyadh's list of 13 ludicrous demands, the Saudi-led alliance has pretty much called all the shots, meting out punitive measures to Doha like a parent might seek to control a wayward child asserting its independence after reaching adulthood.

One such moment came when it faced the prospect of soccer teams from Saudi Arabia and UAE travelling to Qatar for their away games in the Asian Football Confederation's Champions League.

If you want to play in the tournament, all fixtures are to be played home and away in the countries concerned. Those are the rules

Not only that but, under normal circumstances, they would also have had to play host to Qatari teams, containing such well known internationals as Wesley Sneijder and Xavi.

No bother, they assumed, we'll just tell the AFC we want to play the fixtures in a neutral country.

However the AFC, to its credit, isn't quite as spineless as that.

"No", the answer came back. "If you want to play in the tournament, all fixtures are to be played home and away in the countries concerned. Those are the rules."

There were mutterings, as you'd expect, but eventually the representative bodies from each country agreed.

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Well, that was easy. Eight months of "Oh, we can't possibly do this", and "Don't you dare do that" have been swept aside in an instant by a football tournament.

The Saudis weren't happy, of course, and couldn't resist having a swipe at the Malaysia-based AFC, accusing it of bias and letting itself be swayed by the head of the competitions committee - who is from Qatar.

I expect the players will be treated with great civility when they arrive to play their matches in Saudi Arabia, UAE and Qatar next month.

Certainly the crowds in Doha will want to show the two countries can treat each other with mutual respect, even if their leaders cannot. Qatar's message all along has been that the Arab brothers have no quarrel.

And so, I believe, will the people of Saudi Arabia and UAE share their enormous hospitality.

It was notable how, after all the public posturing by the politicians in Riyadh at the start of the World Rapid and Blitz Chess Tournament in December, everyone just got on with it.

I hope we are sending a very clear message that chess or sport can bring people together as it always does

The Saudi authorities demanded that Qatari players did not fly their national flag, but the one belonging to the World chess body, FIDE, instead.

But once everyone was done with slinging mud at Doha and TV cameras had gone away, both sides just got on with it.

The Qatari chess grandmaster Mohammed Al-Modiakhi noted: "Now the Qatar flag is very visible in the playing hall along with other countries' flags too."

Mohammed missed the start of the tournament because of the politicians playing games with the Qatari team about whether they would be granted visas to come to Riyadh.

The players arrived too late and too tired to compete in the start of the competition.

So they ended up skipping the "Rapid" tournament but did play in the "Blitz" stage - by then the politicians had finished playing their games.

As Mohammed told me: "By playing here in Riyadh, I hope we are sending a very clear message that chess or sport can bring people together as it always does."

It is a message that the players from the soccer teams competing in the AFC Champions League and the crowds of their fans would do well to take with them as they set off into "enemy territory".

Anthony Harwood is a former foreign editor of the Daily Mail.

Follow him on Twitter: @anthonyjharwood 

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.