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Tuesday 15 January 2019

The game in the Gulf

When Saudi Arabia take the field against Qatar this week, much more than just a football will be in play

By Tony Evans

Under normal circumstances only football fans, and not that many of them, would be interested in the Asian Cup group E match between Saudi Arabia and Qatar in Abu Dhabi on Thursday. The Saudis are 69th in Fifa’s rankings of the world’s best international teams. Their opponents are 93rd.

This game transcends sport, though. It opens a window on to the toxic political microclimate of the Arabian Peninsula, where football has become a potent instrument of power and influence. This duel in the desert could have significant repercussions across the globe.

Sports administrators, and especially those in football, love the idea that their game can bridge political divides. The fantasy has been nurtured ever since the Christmas truce of 1914 on the Western Front. Pele’s “Beautiful Game” has since been pumped up by commercial success, but that doesn’t make it a geopolitical cure-all.

For anyone hoping to defy historical precedent now, the Gulf is a particularly awkward place to start. For the past two years Saudi Arabia and its allies have imposed a diplomatic and trade boycott on Qatar. The Riyadh-led coalition accuses Doha of supporting terrorism and has made 13 demands – including cutting off economic ties with Iran and closing down the al-Jazeera television station – but the Qataris have refused to accede. Last year there were rumours that the Saudis were preparing to invade Qatar and were dissuaded only by the influence of the US. A cold war has begun in the heat of the gulf.

There will be few, if any, Qatar supporters in the stadium on Thursday. Saoud al-Mohannadi, the Qatari vice-president of the Asian Football Confederation and the chairman of the organising committee of the Asian Cup, was initially blocked from entering the United Arab Emirates for the tournament. The UAE quickly relented but the incident embarrassed the game’s regional and global governing bodies.

Getty Images

FIFA President Gianni Infantino inspects Al Wakrah Stadium

Last month, Gianni Infantino visited the UAE and spoke about the importance of keeping politics out of football. The Fifa president has taken a special interest in the Arab world for a number of reasons: there is money to be made from oil and gas-rich countries but, more importantly, Qatar will host the World Cup in three years’ time.

Arab money has helped change the face of football all over the world in the past decade. Abu Dhabi bought Manchester City 11 years ago and the ruling family of the emirate have so far pumped more than £1.3 billion into the club to turn it into a Premier League and European power. City’s owners have bold ambitions that extend beyond the north-west of England. They have acquired a series of teams around the world, including in New York and Melbourne. The plan is to develop a club on every continent that is part of the City brand.

Qatar’s involvement in football is every bit as ambitious. It was controversially awarded the right to host the 2022 World Cup nine years ago and insiders estimate that the tournament will cost the country about £140 billion by the time the final whistle blows. Russia spent approximately £11.5 billion to host the competition last year.

Like Abu Dhabi, Qatar also bludgeoned its way into European football with money. Eight years ago it acquired Paris Saint-Germain and the club has since spent similar amounts to City on its way to becoming the overwhelmingly dominant team in France.

Both clubs have benefited from inflated state sponsorship deals that are not available to their rivals and both have ridden roughshod over Uefa’s Financial Fair Play rules. The positive publicity and influence generated by Qatar and Abu Dhabi’s involvement in football has been balanced by negative coverage about their teams skewing competition. Overall, though, both nations regard their involvement with football as a success. Hosting the World Cup, in particular, will be a significant coup.

Saudi Arabia has eyed the success of its rivals with envy. “The Saudis have been looking to muscle their way in for some time,” said a senior football figure with good contacts in the region. “They are pushing to share the World Cup.”

Getty Images

FIFA World Cup 2022 Qatar Al-Wakrah Stadium

The interests of Infantino and Riyadh coincide on this issue. The Fifa president wants to expand the 2022 tournament to 48 teams. Qatar has a contract to produce only a 32-nation World Cup. Fifa is in the process of producing a feasibility study on expanding the line-up that will be ready in March but it is clear that Qatar – despite making  huge and costly improvements to the nation’s infrastructure – would need to turn to its neighbours if it had to cope with extra teams and supporters. Indeed, there are many who think it may struggle to cope with a 32-team tournament.

Saudi Arabia shares Qatar’s only land border and unless the political situation changes there is little possibility that Infantino will realise his dreams of expansion. The Fifa president is already deeply involved with the Saudis, who are behind plans to revamp the Club World Cup in a joint venture with the game’s ruling body. SoftBank, the Japanese telecommunications giant, with backing from Riyadh, has proposed paying almost £20 billion to hold four club tournaments to be played every four years from 2021. There has been opposition from Europe but the figures involved are eye-watering: each club would receive £100 million for their participation over two weeks. That is more prize money than the Champions League winners receive.

Getty Images

Female members of the Qatari armed forces attend a military parade to mark Qatar’s national day celebration

There is some question whether Qatar can successfully host a World Cup while surrounded by antagonistic neighbours. BeIn Sports, the Doha-based TV channel that owns the regional rights to the Asian Cup as well as the Champions League and a number of European leagues, has been undermined by a pirate organisation called BeoutQ, allegedly broadcasting from a Saudi satellite operator. BeoutQ blocks the BeIn signal and recycles the Qatari coverage as its own. “It is a very bad sign,” the insider said. “World Cup cyber threats are a big worry. Imagine someone crashed the credit card system in Qatar during the tournament. It would be mayhem.”

There were real fears that the World Cup in Russia would turn into a chaotic mess, especially given the political problems with Ukraine, but last summer’s festival of football turned into a triumph for Vladimir Putin. Russia received huge praise and arguably more positive publicity than ever before. It was the perfect example of sport as a soft-power tool.

The big difference between the two World Cups is that Putin’s regime was the dominant force in the conflict between adjacent countries. Saudi Arabia is the most powerful presence on the peninsula.

“Russia was great despite the scare stories,” one insider said. “I’m not so sure Qatar will be. The blockade is hurting them. Doha airport is deserted because there are no Emirates planes there. The pressure is on.”

Football is often a unifying force but those with knowledge of the area’s politics are uncertain about whether it can have a positive effect. “The scary thing is Infantino thinking he can deliver not just the World Cup but [win] a Nobel Peace Prize for helping to bring nations together,” the football insider continued. “He’s in way above his head.”

There will be little at stake on the pitch on Thursday, both teams having secured their place in the knockout round of the Asian Cup. But the antagonism and competition between Saudi Arabia and Qatar is likely to continue long after the contest on the pitch has been forgotten. It is possible that far from healing old wounds, this game could open new ones.

Top image: Getty Images