Arabian Gulf Cup: Football, blockade and an ‘historic’ win

A look back at the regional tournament in Qatar, played amid a two-year diplomatic dispute and won by Bahrain.

24th Arabian Gulf Cup [Showkat Shafi/Al Jazeera]
Bahrain ended a 49-year wait to clinch their first title at the regional tournament [Showkat Shafi/Al Jazeera]

Doha, Qatar – The curtain has fallen on the 24th Arabian Gulf Cup in Qatar, with a new regional football champion crowned.

Bahrain beat three-times champion Saudi Arabia 1-0 in Sunday’s final in the capital, Doha, to lift their first trophy at the biennial eight-nation tournament.

This was the fourth time Qatar hosted the event that attracted extra attention as it was played against the backdrop of a two-year diplomatic dispute with three of its neighbours – Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

But the trio’s decision to reverse their boycott of the event and participate was widely welcomed amid growing signs of a thaw in relations.

On the field

It was a memorable championship for the underdogs, Bahrain, who knocked out 10-times winner Kuwait and a higher-ranked Iraqi side en route to their maiden title.

Saudi Arabia, having reached their fifth final, were denied a fourth trophy.

But Saudi midfielder Abdullah Atif went home with the best player award and the Green Falcons’ Fawaz al-Qarni was the best goalkeeper, conceding four goals in five matches.

24th Arabian Gulf Cup [Showkat Shafi/Al Jazeera]
Qatar’s Maroons showed glimpses of the flair that steered them to their first Asian title earlier this year [Showkat Shafi/Al Jazeera]

Meanwhile, Iraq’s undefeated run to the semi-finals, beating Qatar and the UAE before falling to eventual winners Bahrain, brought temporary joy to the thousands of anti-government protesters camped out in the capital Baghdad, where they continue to demand a complete overhaul of the political system.

Asian champions Qatar lost to Saudi Arabia in the semi-finals, causing organisers to move the final match from the 40,000-capacity Khalifa International Stadium to a smaller venue.

Blockade relief?

Despite airspace restrictions, in place since June 2017, teams from Saudi Arabia and Bahrain reportedly flew in directly to Doha.

Planeloads of Bahraini football fans also arrived, flying via Kuwait, ahead of their team’s semi-final and final.

“The fact that Saudi and Bahraini fans were able to travel to Doha and were made to feel welcome guests chipped a huge crack in the blockade and generated a momentum for the restrictions to be lifted,” Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a US-based expert on the Middle East, told Al Jazeera.

J Simon Rofe, Global Diplomacy programme director at the University of London, said: “Sport played out in the context of political boycotts are always significant. The symbolism is important to all parties – however it is interpreted.”

24th Arabian Gulf Cup [Showkat Shafi/Al Jazeera]
Eleven planeloads of Bahraini supporters flew in to Doha for Sunday’s final [Showkat Shafi/Al Jazeera]

Spectators told Al Jazeera they were hopeful the tournament would help ease political tensions and end the blockade.

“The main thing is if they are coming here and they are playing, then one can imagine the relations getting better,” Sheaffer Babu, 30, from India, said.

Sana Bhar, a female Tunisian fan, who came from Kuwait to watch the final, said: “Sports help everything.”

Fair sportsmanship

The matches were played in a good competitive spirit and fans were mostly respectful, with no scuffles reported on or off the field.

There was no repeat of the crowd disruptions that marred the Asian Cup semi-final between hosts UAE and Qatar when the two sides met here in a decisive Group A encounter.

“I think the tournament was a success in both the sporting and the political angles as it took place in a welcoming atmosphere and with a generosity of spirit that was far removed from so much of the antagonism and confrontation of the past two years,” Ulrichsen said.

Qatar 2022

Two state-of-the-art air-conditioned venues that will stage FIFA World Cup matches in 2022 were also put to the test during the tournament.

A total of 43,780 spectators packed the Khalifa International Stadium, which was renovated and reopened in May 2017, to witness Qatar’s decisive Group A victory against the UAE.

24th Arabian Gulf Cup [Showkat Shafi/Al Jazeera]
The al-Janoub Stadium is the first purpose-built venue completed for the 2022 World Cup [Showkat Shafi/Al Jazeera]

“I have been to many stadiums – in England, France, Spain – but what I have seen here is amazing, it’s incredible,” Oumar Fofana, a football fan from Guinea, told Al Jazeera.

“I cannot compare it to anywhere else,” the 42-year-old Doha resident added.

The al-Janoub Stadium in the coastal city of al-Wakrah, whose futuristic design was inspired by traditional Arabian dhow boats, attracted a 42,025-strong crowd for the Qatar-Saudi semi-final.

24th Arabian Gulf Cup [Showkat Shafi/Al Jazeera]
The multi-purpose Khalifa International Stadium, built in 1976, also hosted the IAAF World Athletics Championships in October [Showkat Shafi/Al Jazeera] 

“We are very close to the big events, like the World Cup that is coming soon, and this month we are hosting the FIFA Club World Cup, so it is good for testing these venues, and bring more people to test as much as we can,” Ammar Mohammed, a 32-year-old Qatari supporter told Al Jazeera. 

The next edition of the Arabian Gulf Cup will be hosted by Iraq in 2021.

Follow Saba Aziz on Twitter: @saba_aziz

Source: Al Jazeera