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A Soccer Tournament Breaks Through the Boycott of Qatar

Wesley Sneijder

It has also affected the region’s most popular sport, soccer.

Supply lines sustaining construction projects for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar have been interrupted, and a regional championship tournament that was scheduled to take place in Qatar in December was moved to Kuwait because Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain had refused to participate in the original location.
But in the last few days, soccer appears to have found a way around the wall.
On Saturday, the Asian Football Confederation, which oversees soccer in the region, declared that when teams from Saudi Arabia and the UAE meet Qatari clubs in the AFC Champions League, the games would take place home and away in those countries as planned instead of at neutral sites. Since the blockade includes a blanket ban on travel to and from Qatar by land, sea or air, the confederation effectively ordered Saudi and Emirati clubs already scheduled to face Qatari opponents to ignore it in order to remain in the competition.
The blockade began because Qatar’s foes accuse it of financing terrorism, cozying up to Iran and harboring fugitive dissidents; the travel ban had been its most visible aspect. But those travel restrictions were seemingly swept away — at least for one narrow, but quite public, case — by the AFC’s ruling and by Saudi and Emirati soccer officials subsequently accepting that decision.
“It is interesting that soccer is the only thing that appears to be breaching the diplomatic and economic boycott,” said James Dorsey, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and a specialist in soccer and politics in the Middle East. “In an environment in which the nations are having nothing to do with each other, this is the first way through.”
This was not the case last December with the Gulf Cup, a biennial tournament featuring eight national teams from the region that was scheduled to be played in Qatar. Ten days before the opening match, with Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain refusing to participate, Qatar agreed to allow the tournament be switched to Kuwait. (The UAE soccer association said, in that case, its reasons for boycotting were not political.)
The tournament went off without major incidents: Saudi Arabia and the UAE were placed in a different group from Qatar’s, and their national teams never met on the field. But with no resolution to the diplomatic crisis, concern quickly shifted to this year’s Champions League, a tournament featuring 32 of Asia’s top clubs from various countries, set to begin its group stage in February.
The problem was that the tournament is split into eight groups of four teams, and with four clubs from Qatar, four from the Emirates and two from Saudi Arabia in the field, a collision of at least two of them seemed inevitable. (Iran, which has sided with Qatar in the political dispute, also has teams in the tournament and has its own diplomatic impasse with Saudi Arabia.) In the end, half of the eight groups contain at least one team from Qatar and one from Saudi Arabia or the UAE (or both).
In January, the confederation sent a delegation to the region to investigate the situation. But on Saturday it announced the games would be played at home sites after all, according to the event’s regulations.
“The regulations are clear, and matches must be played in home-and-away format, especially in club competitions,” said Dato’ Windsor John, the AFC’s general secretary. “Now we need to think from an operational point of view. We need to sit down with them and see what is needed. In terms of venues, kickoff times and all the rest, there is a lot to do.”
Both the Saudi and UAE federations expressed surprise at the decision but quickly indicated their participating clubs would not withdraw. The first tests arrive Feb. 12, when the group stage begins.
“In view of UAE FA keenness to cooperate with AFC, it announces the participation of its affiliated clubs in ACL 2018,” the emirates Football Association said in a statement.
Dorsey said that he saw compliance as a practical recognition by Saudi Arabia and the UAE of the popularity of soccer in their countries, and an acknowledgment of the risks of denying fans access to prestigious games.
“I don’t think it shows that there is a change in attitude so much as the need for domestic maneuvering,” he said.
That does not mean there will be no trouble. During the Gulf Cup in December, a Saudi delegation walked out of a news conference to protest the presence of Qatari journalists. In September, Saudi authorities ejected a reporter from the Qatari-owned network beIN Sports from a crucial 2018 World Cup qualifier in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, despite the network’s status as the broadcast rights-holder for the event.
The Asian Football Confederation has yet to comment on the prospect of neutral venues when Iranian and Saudi clubs meet. Those two countries cut diplomatic ties in January 2016, and a year later that dispute led to a Champions League semifinal between Al Hilal of Saudi Arabia and Iran’s Persepolis being held in UAE and Oman. Instead of games attracting as many as 150,000 fans combined in Riyadh and Tehran, only 14,000 people actually attended the two neutral-site matches.
“Taking the matches to a third country is a temporary solution, or should be,” said Steve Kim, a former head of club competitions at the AFC. “The games need to be played home and away. But in Asia, that can be difficult.”
All this sporting drama and tension is playing out against the backdrop of the 2022 World Cup, to be hosted by Qatar. The tournament is central to the country’s efforts to become an influential player on the global stage, and disrupting it — or forcing its cancellation — could be seen as a coup for its rivals.
In October, a leading UAE security official wrote on Twitter that the blockade would end if Qatar gave up hosting rights to the tournament. “If the World Cup goes out of Qatar, the crisis in Qatar will end because the crisis was made to break it,” said the official, the Dubai security chief Dhahi Khalfan.
The recent decision by the Champions League, then, is encouraging, according to Dorsey. “If the Gulf crisis is to last into 2022, then this breach of the blockade means that an even more significant breach would occur at the World Cup,” he said.
For John and the AFC, the issue was much simpler.
“We haven’t thought about that,” he said of the World Cup. “We have obligations to fans, media and sponsors, and we are focused on making sure that our fixtures are completed.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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