Mind the gulf as crisis-hit Qatar, Saudis clash at Asian Cup

Nineteen months of diplomatic rancour will be recast as 90 minutes of football when isolated Qatar take on Saudi Arabia in a clash bristling with political symbolism at the Asian Cup on Thursday.

With Saudi Arabia the chief protagonist in a Gulf crisis that has left Qatar, the 2022 World Cup host, cut off from its neighbours since mid-2017, the group game at Abu Dhabi's Zayed Sports City Stadium resonates far beyond the pitch.

Even in sporting terms it is one to watch, with both teams scoring a hatful of unanswered goals in their opening two games, suggesting they are among the favourites to lift the trophy at the same venue on February 1.

Qatar have entered the lion's den at the tournament in the United Arab Emirates, an unflinching Saudi ally and one of the countries which have slashed diplomatic ties and transport links, protesting that Doha supports terrorism -- a claim the Qataris deny.

It means that Qatar are playing without any of their fans at the Asian Cup. Just 452 people watched their 6-0 win over North Korea, the biggest scoreline of the tournament so far, in Al Ain on Sunday.

While Qatar have never gone further than the quarter-finals, Saudi Arabia are one of the continent's traditional football powers, winning the Asian Cup three times and playing five World Cups.

But Qatar's image as the new challenger to the region's accepted order goes beyond the football field, said Simon Chadwick, professor of sports enterprise at Britain's Salford Business School.

Qatar has also led the way in vigorously promoting itself and extending its soft power through sport, notably by securing the World Cup and through deals like the purchase of French club Paris Saint-Germain, and Qatar Airways' shirt sponsorship of Barcelona.

- 'Upstart' Qatar -

"In very simple terms, Saudi Arabia is the regional power and Qatar is something of an upstart," Chadwick told AFP.

"The essence of all this is that Saudi Arabia wants Qatar to fall into line and Qatar refuses to do that."

He added: "Qatar are like a rebellious teenager... they are the Sex Pistols of the Middle East."

The effects have been noticeable at the Asian Cup, whose rights-holding broadcaster, beIN Sports, is Qatari -- with the result that the games are not widely shown in the host country.

As the tournament progresses, beIN and the Asian Football Confederation have complained about Saudi-based pirate channel beoutQ, which has been broadcasting the games illegally.

Saudi Arabia has borrowed from the Qatari blueprint by attracting a number of high-profile sports events, including Wednesday's Italian Super Cup between Juventus and AC Milan in Jeddah.

However, last month's tennis exhibition between Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic was called off following an international outcry over the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, although the official reason for the cancellation was an injury to Nadal.

"Sports is a strategy for various of the Gulf states (but) the Qataris have been much more strategic about this," said James M. Dorsey, a senior fellow at Singapore's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and a blogger and author on Middle Eastern politics and football.

"Most countries develop a sports structure with various components, like sports media and sports security, that's developed organically.

"The Qataris have stamped that out overnight. They see sports as part of their effort to forge a national identity."

Chadwick said the Asian Cup was a "microcosm" of the Gulf dispute, and "a means through which these nations will be playing out their fight with one another".

"Even things like the quality and standard of the football will be really important," he said.

"If you demonstrate yourself as the Brazil of the Middle East and you have got silky skills" it will give a positive view of your country, he added.

"(But) if you are a dirty team (you may) colour perceptions."

Dorsey said the situation also undermined the belief, often repeated by senior sports administrators, that sport and politics operate separately.

"You have the fiction that politics and sport are separate. That's baloney. They're Siamese twins joined at the hip, inseparable," he said.

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