The Asian Cup is no stranger to throwing up clashes between geopolitical adversaries but even to the most seasoned aficionado, Thursday’s meeting between Saudi Arabia and Qatar brought with it more than an added hint of intrigue.
While the occasion was ostensibly about football and Qatar’s 2-0 victory, the build up to the contest that’s been dubbed the “blockade derby” was surrounded by analysis of the politics and diplomatic strife in the region.
This game represented the first time the two had met on the football field since the Saudis were joined by Bahrain, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates in breaking off relations with Qatar in June 2017.
That Thursday’s match also took place in Abu Dhabi, in the UAE, added yet another plot twist.
The boycott, the worst diplomatic crisis to hit the Gulf Arab states in decades, followed allegations that Qatar was supporting terrorism and destabilizing the region.
Qatar rejected the accusations, labeling them “unjustified” and “baseless.”
Much of the criticism aimed at Qatar comes from its alleged support of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamic group considered a terrorist organization by Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Qatari citizens were given 14 days to leave Saudi Arabi, Bahrain and the UAE, while all three countries banned their own citizens from entering Qatar.
Yemen, Mauritius, Mauritania, the Maldives and Libya’s eastern-based government also joined the boycott.
The air and land blockade imposed on Qatar also meant that the national team had to take a longer route to reach the UAE, flying via Kuwait instead.
Both teams came into the contest having already qualified for the last 16 after winning their opening two group stage fixtures.
Qatar, the host nation for the 2022 World Cup, had been particularly impressive in its 6-0 demolition of North Korea in its previous match.
On this occasion it overcame a first-half penalty miss to seal top spot courtesy of Almoez Ali’s double.
The forward gave Qatar the lead on the stroke of halftime before heading home his second 10 minutes from time to seal the win and take his tally to seven for the tournament.
Qatar now plays Iraq in the last 16, while Saudi Arabia faces Japan.