At Gulf Cup in Qatar, a showdown of 'football, not politics'

Host nation Qatar to play Iraq, while UAE squares off against Yemen on opening day of regional football tournament.

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    At Gulf Cup in Qatar, a showdown of 'football, not politics'
    This is the fourth time Qatar - a three-time winner - is hosting the regional event [Saba Aziz/Al Jazeera]

    Doha, Qatar - Ali Galadari has fond memories of attending the Gulf Cup with his family and friends, both at home in Qatar and in the neighbouring countries.

    In 1986, as a 12-year-old, he took his first trip for the biennial regional football tournament to Bahrain and has been a regular attendee since.

    "The Gulf Cup is in our blood," the former player for Qatar's Al Ahli Club told Al Jazeera.

    "Since the beginning, it was our dream to attend. I have been to many countries, including Saudi Arabia, UAE and Oman," he said.

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    On Tuesday, the 24th edition of the Arabian Gulf Cup kicks off in the Qatari capital, Doha, but not before a few hiccups along the way.

    Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain were included late in the draw after they reversed their decision to boycott the event over a two-year-old diplomatic dispute with the host nation.

    A revised draw was made after new invitations from the organising Arab Gulf Cup Football Federation (AGCFF) were accepted by the three nations earlier this month.

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    The trio, along with Egypt, continues to impose a land, air and sea blockade on Qatar after severing ties in June 2017 and accusing it of "supporting terrorism", a charge repeatedly and vehemently rejected by Doha.

    But the Saudi Football Federation and the UAE Football Association adjusted the calendars of their local leagues to be able to compete in the eight-nation regional event.

    Teams from the three blockading nations landed in Doha on Monday.

    Welcoming their participation, the AGCFF said: "[The tournament] has underlined its ability to overcome the challenges and obstacles under the circumstances the region is undergoing."

    "The Gulf Cup remains a constant affirmation that our Gulf is one," it said in a statement.

    Welcoming the guests

    Despite a ban on direct travel, Jassim al-Rumaihi, the secretary-general of the AGCFF, told reporters that "the state of Qatar will make the necessary arrangements" to ensure that fans from the blockading nations can also attend the matches.

    Eight participating teams have been split into two groups. In Group A, Asian champions Qatar are drawn against Yemen, Iraq and the UAE.

    Defending champions Oman are in Group B where they will be joined by Saudi Arabia, 10-time winners Kuwait and Bahrain in the group stages.

    The opening match on Tuesday at 7:30pm local time (16:30 GMT) will see Qatar compete against three-time champion Iraq at the Khalifa International Stadium, a 40,000 capacity air-conditioned venue that also hosted the IAAF World Athletics Championships last month.

    Later on Tuesday, 2017 finalist UAE will face-off against Yemen at the 12,000-capacity Abdullah Bin Khalifa Stadium. 

    This is the fourth time Qatar - a three-time winner of the cup - is hosting the regional event.

    The previous Arabian Gulf Cup, two years ago, was originally scheduled to be held in Doha, but was moved to Kuwait in the aftermath of the blockade.

    The Gulf diplomatic crisis overshadowed the 2017 event, with Saudi Arabia's team refusing to talk to the press due to the presence of Qatar-based news channels, including Al Jazeera.

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    Analysts are hopeful tensions "will not be running so high" and the tournament "will be played in a spirit that reflects its sporting rather than political significance".

    "The about-turn and decision to participate in the Gulf Cup is an encouraging signal that relations in the region may be thawing and that the zero-sum mentality that came to characterise decision-making in the blockading states may at last be giving way," Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, author of The Gulf States In International Political Economy, told Al Jazeera.

    Christopher Davidson, a UK-based expert on the Middle East, said: "The decision by the UAE and Saudi Arabia to cancel their boycott … demonstrates an increasing awareness in Abu Dhabi and Riyadh of the need to burnish their regional and international reputations and to avoid being axiomatically labelled 'the bad guys'."

    "After all, they too host major international sporting events, and will be keen to avoid being blackballed by future organising committees," he added.

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    Khalifa International Stadium is one of the two venues being used for the two-week tournament [File: Maja Hitij/Getty Images]

    Meanwhile, anticipation in Doha is high for the rematch of the AFC Asian Cup semi-final between Qatar and the UAE on December 2, with a limited number of tickets left for sale, according to the tournament website.

    Their last encounter in Abu Dhabi in January, which Qatar won 4-0 en route to its maiden Asian title, was marred by crowd disruptions with shoes and bottles thrown at Qatari players.

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    Win or lose, Galadari is confident the home fans will welcome and treat their guests with respect.

    "We are having some [political] issues, but we will not bring them into sports," he said.

    Hamad al-Mansouri, a 37-year-old Qatari football fan, agreed.

    "Here, when the national anthem of the Emirates starts playing, you'll see the whole stadium standing up in respect."

    The final game will be played on December 8.

    Follow Saba Aziz on Twitter: @saba_aziz

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    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News