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January 6, 2019

Qatar football team arrives in political rival UAE for Asian Cup


Sun, Jan 06, 2019

DOHA: Qatar´s 23-man football squad for the Asian Cup touched down in the United Arab Emirates Saturday on a sports quest which could ultimately be overshadowed by a political dispute.

The Qatar Football Association said the team had arrived in Abu Dhabi, at what is a highly sensitive time for the Gulf, as hosts UAE are among several countries to have imposed a diplomatic and economic boycott on Doha since June 2017.

A tweet by the QFA said the squad had "arrived at Al-Ain airport and the delegation is en route to our team´s hotel".

Officials and players have vowed to put politics to one side during the almost month-long tournament.

"In the end this is football," Qatar´s goalkeeper Saad al-Sheeb told AFP before embarking for the UAE.

"We just control ourselves and play football," he said.

But the tournament could prove to be a flashpoint, especially since Qatar play Saudi in a group game in Abu Dhabi on January 17.

The UAE, Saudi and Bahrain -- also competing in the cup -- accuse Doha of supporting terrorism and seeking closer relations with Shiite powerhouse Iran.

Qatar denies this and claims its regional rivals are seeking regime change in Doha.

Even the Qatari team´s journey to the UAE was a reminder of the politics involved -- the squad flew via Kuwait, because of a ban on direct flights imposed against Doha by the UAE, Saudi and Bahrain.

The stop-off was also symbolic as it is Kuwait which has led regional mediation over the 19-month long crisis.

Football has fed into the Gulf dispute, due to calls from among the boycotting nations for Qatar to be stripped of hosting the World Cup in 2022.

Gianni Infantino, the head of world football´s governing body FIFA, has touted increasing participation at the World Cup finals from 32 to 48 teams, saying it could help promote regional cooperation if Doha shared games with its rivals.

It is the first time Qatar´s team has travelled to the UAE since the diplomatic crisis began.

Already politics has cast its shadow over the tournament.

A leading Qatari official and tournament organiser, Saoud al-Mohannadi, was allegedly barred from entering the UAE on his first attempt, though officials in Abu Dhabi disputed this.

A statement by the Asian Football Confederation on Thursday said it was "investigating the situation" before Mohannadi eventually entered the Emirates on Friday.

Five Qatar-based journalists also claim they were not allowed into the UAE to cover the tournament, after allegedly being kept waiting at Dubai airport for 13 hours before returning to Doha.

Qatar´s opening game is on January 9 against Lebanon in Abu Dhabi.

The Asian Cup, which runs until February 1, started on Saturday with the hosts drawing 1-1 with Bahrain.