Qatar and Saudi Arabia will face off in a highly anticipated football match at the 2019 AFC Asian Cup on Thursday, the first meeting between the two Gulf nations since the start of a major diplomatic crisis in June 2017.
Both teams are coming into the encounter at Abu Dhabi’s Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium after convincing wins – the Saudis beat Lebanon 2-0 while Qatar registered a 6-0 thrashing of North Korea.
The match, which will decide the top spot in Group E, will be played against the backdrop of a regional political dispute, which saw Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Egypt cut all political, diplomatic and economic ties with Qatar.
The quartet accuses Qatar of supporting “terrorism” and destabilising the region, charges Doha has consistently denied.
“We want to win this match, not because of the political matters but to get to the top of the table,” Ali Al Salat, Qatar Football Association’s (QFA) media officer, told Al Jazeera while stressing that “[there] was no need to mix political issues with sports”.
But the Gulf crisis has already overshadowed the 24-nation tournament, which kicked off on January 5 and will run until February 1.
A land, air and sea blockade on Qatar meant that the private jet carrying the 25-player Qatari squad took a longer route and had to fly to the UAE via Kuwait.
Qatari fans have also been unable to attend the games and support the national side from the stands in the UAE, where showing sympathy for Qatar remains punishable with up to 15 years in jail.
“It’s unfortunate that politics has to interfere with sports,” said Khalid Al Mohannadi, a Qatari citizen and Doha resident. “Due to these unpleasant circumstances, we can only support the team from a distance.”
Qatar-based beIN Sports is the host and exclusive broadcaster of the tournament in the Middle East and North Africa region.
The broadcaster’s crew of around 20 people is currently in the UAE covering the tournament, along with Qatari channel Al Kass. However, some Doha-based journalists were barred from entering the UAE despite holding valid accreditation.
A broadcasting row between Doha and Riyadh was also reignited after pirate company, beoutQ, which emerged in 2017 and is allegedly based in Saudi Arabia, aired the Asian Cup matches.
The Asian Football Confederation (AFC), joining a group of major sports federations and broadcasters in condemning the operation, vowed to take legal action in Saudi Arabia.
“What started out as a concerted and targeted campaign against beIN has now morphed into the largest commercial theft that’s ever been seen in the world of sport and entertainment,” Tom Keaveny, managing director of beIN MENA, said in a statement on Wednesday.
On the field, Qatar and Saudi Arabia will renew a sporting rivalry that dates back to the 1970s.
Saudi Arabia leads the head-to-head with 17 wins and six losses.
It is the highest-ranked Gulf side in the world at 69 and is hoping to avenge its 2014 loss to Qatar in Riyadh. Qatar won the match at the 2014 Gulf Cup 2-1 en route its third title.
According to the AFC, a high level of security is provided to all competing teams during the continental tournament.
“We expect all supporters, players and teams to be well behaved and any infringement of the rules will be dealt with under the AFC regulations,” the Asian football body told Al Jazeera in an emailed statement.
Ali Galadari, former player for Qatar’s Al Ahli football club, will be watching the match on TV with family and friends in Doha.
“Our heart is with them,” he said. “We can only watch on the screens and support them from here.”