Qatar football team heads to political rival UAE for Asian Cup

Doha (AFP) –


Qatar's 23-man football squad for the Asian Cup left Doha on Saturday, heading circuitously to the United Arab Emirates on a sports quest which could ultimately be overshadowed by politics.

The tiny gas-rich state's participation in Asia's biggest football tournament comes at a highly sensitive time in Gulf relations, as host UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain have imposed a political and economic boycott on Doha since June 2017.

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.

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

But the tournament -- which pitches Qatar against Saudi in Abu Dhabi on January 17 -- could prove to be a flashpoint.

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

The team's route is symbolic as Kuwait has led regional mediation over the crisis.

Abu Dhabi, Riyadh and Manama accuse Doha -- which is the 2022 World Cup host -- of supporting terrorism and seeking closer relations with Iran.

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

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

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 "aware of reports that [Mohannadi]... was unable to travel to the United Arab Emirates from Muscat in Oman".

The AFC had said it was "investigating the situation".

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.