Doha: Qatar coach Felix Sanchez has vowed to “isolate” his players from politics at the Asian Cup, which is taking place in the United Arab Emirates during a diplomatic crisis between the countries.
The tournament represents the first visit by the Qatari national side to the UAE since the beginning of a row that has transformed the Gulf and left Doha cut off from its neighbouring former allies.
Since June 2017, the UAE and other regional powers have imposed a boycott on Qatar, accusing it of backing terrorism and being too close to Iran. Two of the other nations who have enforced the boycott also have teams in the tournament, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.
Qatar denies the charges and says its neighbours are seeking regime change in Doha.
With the dispute now into its nineteenth month, the Asian Cup is the most high-profile sporting competition so far between the former allies turned bitter rivals.
And nothing is likely to be more highly-charged than the meeting between Saudi and Qatar in a Group E match in Abu Dhabi on January 17.
As if the on-pitch weight of expectation surrounding Qatar’s young team ahead of hosting the 2022 World Cup was not enough, now they have to navigate a delicate off-field situation.
Sanchez though has vowed to concentrate solely on football.
“This [political situation] is something we’ve discussed with the players,” he told AFP. “They are very conscious and I am convinced that during the competition they will be able to maintain their focus on the sport and to isolate ourselves from the rest of it all.”
The team arrived in UAE on Saturday, having to fly via Kuwait in the first sign this is no ordinary trip – a ban on direct flights has been imposed against Doha by the UAE, Saudi and Bahrain.
A leading Qatari official and tournament organiser was earlier allegedly barred from entering the UAE on his first attempt, though officials in Abu Dhabi disputed this.
Saoud al-Mohannadi eventually entered the Emirates on Friday. But 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.
Qatari domestic sides who have played in the UAE or Saudi in the AFC Champions League have previously spoken of delays at airport immigration and comments about Qatar, or encountered rival captains refusing to shake hands before the match.
However, goalkeeper Saad al-Sheeb said the players would remain unaffected.
“In the end this is football,” he said. “We just control ourselves and play football.”
On the pitch, Qatar have shown a distinct improvement since Spaniard Sanchez took charge in 2017. Initially seen as a stop-gap appointment at the end of a failed World Cup qualification campaign, the 43-year-old has transformed the team.
He has placed emphasis on young, largely Qatari-born players – rather than imported stars – who have progressed through the Aspire Academy, an expensively-built Doha training centre which seeks to hothouse local talent.
These include forward Akram Afif, the first Qatari to play in Spain’s La Liga, and defender Abdulkarim Hassan, just voted the AFC 2018 player of the year.
In November, Qatar achieved its most notable international victory, beating Switzerland 1-0 in Lugano.
The average age of Qatar’s starting line-up in Switzerland was 24 years and 195 days, and 13 of the 25 players who travelled to Europe were Aspire graduates. Sanchez is proving a unique problem for Qatar football association bosses who like to hire and fire coaches.
Since the beginning of the century Qatar has hired 15 separate coaches, and one of those twice, as they desperately seek to put the team on the world stage. Sanchez has worked with the Qatari players at every level from the academy through the Under-19s, Under-20s, Under-23s and now the full team.
It is the beginning of a massive year for Sanchez and Qatar, who will also play in the Copa America later in 2019. In an Asian Cup group also consisting of Lebanon and North Korea, a resurgent “al-Annabi” (the Maroons) will be confident of reaching the knockouts.
It is the tenth time they have qualified for the Asian Cup but have never progressed further than the quarter-finals. This time though they have a lot to prove. “I certainly nominate Qatar to be the dark horse of the tournament,” said Hassan.