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Gulf Cup amid Gulf crisis: This week in Middle East football Open in fullscreen

Uri Levy

Gulf Cup amid Gulf crisis: This week in Middle East football

Oman midfielder Ahmed Mubarak holds the trophy on his return to Muscat [Getty]

Date of publication: 10 January, 2018

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Oman surprised in the Gulf Cup, winning a tournament at risk of being cancelled as tensions continue among neighbouring countries.
The final whistle of the twenty-third edition of the Arabian Gulf Cup blew last Friday in Kuwait with a dramatic and surprising flourish. The modest national team of Oman won the tournament after a high-tension penalty shootout with the UAE.

The tournament, whose very existence had been at great risk due to the political tension in the region, held so many stories and confrontations that it could fill a book.

It all started way back in 2015, when Kuwait was suspended from FIFA for governmental intervention in its football association. FIFA decided to ban the country from hosting the tournament as agreed, and competition organisers were left to search for a new home.

Qatar saw the situation as a great opportunity for a dress rehearsal ahead of the 2022 World Cup, and volunteered to take on the responsibility of hosting. Back then, nobody could have guessed the regional geopolitical climate of 2017.

The Qatari FA aspired to show the world its football hosting capabilities, amid rumours and reports criticising workers' conditions in stadium construction sites, as well as controversy around the awarding of the World Cup bid in the first place.

Gulf crisis in football

On June 5, 2017, the Gulf Crisis erupted. Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain all cut ties with Qatar in one day. The whole region was plunged into instability. FIFA maintained that neither the World Cup nor the Gulf Cup were under threat of cancellation. But as time went by and the Gulf tournament kick-off got closer, it was clear that the Saudis and their affiliates wouldn't put politics aside in favour of the beautiful game.

As was largely expected, the Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain all pulled out of the tournament - just three weeks before kick-off. FIFA decided to intervene. A supervising delegation landed in Kuwait, and with around two weeks to the first match, declared that Kuwait was eligible for hosting the tournament, and that the international ban on the country's football was over.

Out of the blue, the 2017 Gulf Cup turned full circle, and landed back in Kuwait, so all Arab Gulf countries would be represented on the pitch.

The national teams were organised into two groups of four, with Saudi Arabia, UAE, Kuwait and Oman in Group A, and Iraq, Qatar, Yemen and Bahrain in Group B.

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FIFA President Gianni Infantino's presence at the opening ceremony, did not guarantee the smooth running hoped for. 

The Emirati and Saudi delegations refused to participate in the main press conference before the tournament, due to the presence of Qatari media outlets in the room. Their walkout was seen as childish by many in the Arab football world, as well as among FIFA officials. But at least it was finally time for some football.

Avoiding confrontation

From the first match it was clear that Saudi Arabia, which had sent a strengthened 'B' squad, still showed great quality compared with its rivals. After beating the hosts in the opening game, the Saudis did almost everything they could to avoid meeting Qatar - who also got off to a flying start with a hammering victory over poor Yemen.

While the Saudis tied with the UAE and surprisingly lost to Oman, Qatar performed likewise with a loss against Iraq and a tie with Bahrain. One of the main highlights of the last match was the handshake shared by Bahraini and Qatari players, in what was a true moment of sportsmanship. Even in as tense an environment as the Gulf, football is one place where politics can briefly be put aside.

The early departures of the two giants of GCC football paved the way for other fascinating stories to pop up out of Kuwait. And for a change, they were mostly stories about football.

Yemeni achievement

"Let's not lie to ourselves. It's impossible to produce anything with the conditions we're living in. We have no sports, for three years there has been no football inside the country," said Alaa al-Sasi of the Yemeni national team.

Yemen finished the competition with three straight losses, but given the situation in the country - a horrific civil war, continuous interventionism by its neighbours, widespread cholera and famine - the team's real achievement was its actual participation itself.

Iraqi heartbreak

Not everything in the Gulf Cup, however, was pessimistic. Iraq played some very attractive football, displayed a talented and young squad and unveiled the stars of tomorrow - Hussein Ali, Ali Faez and Ali Husni - who all put on performances of which seasoned players would be proud.

After early baths for Saudi Arabia and Qatar, it seemed that Iraq had a real chance for a first title since the West Asian Games of 2005. Alas, it wasn't to be, as Iraq lost to the UAE on penalties in the semi-final, and the war-torn country was left heartbroken, with another disappointment in another important moment for the Lions of Mesopotamia.

A tragedy named Amoory

Iraq's loss set the stage for the Gulf's football biggest star, Omar "Amoory" Abdulrahman and his magical UAE generation with Ahmed Khalil and Ali Mabkhout. But it seems that "the Arab Messi" is collapsing under the pressure of representing his national team, in a very similar way in which the real Lionel Messi has failed to win a World Cup with Argentina.

The omens weren't good in the semi-final, as instead of the UAE anthem, Oman's was played.

In the final, the two teams held each other 0-0 until the UAE won a penalty in the 91st minute. But Amoory delivered a limp half-strike weakly into the middle of the goal and the game went into overtime - and then penalties.

Amoory missed yet another chance, and Mohsin al-Khaldi from the tiny footballing nation of Oman scored with style to win the cup for his country.

Oman celebrated with pure joy; titles don't come easy or often for them. And after all the political and media sagas, eventually the winners were those who spoke the least.

Finally, a good word must to go to Kuwait. The hosts set up a great tournament, in no time. Two weeks to prepare is practically nothing, especially with all the tension, politics and media buzz. Ahmad Al-Jaber Stadium hosted perfectly almost all the matches in the tournament. Well, almost.

A few minutes after the final whistle, during Oman's jubilant celebrations, twenty fans fell from a two-metre stand after a trasparent barrier fence broke under the pressure. No casualties were listed, only a few light injuries, but after a great two weeks of football the final act in Kuwait was a shock and embarrassment.

If anyone thought that such a Gulf Cup could end in a peaceful way with an Omani Cinderella winning it and everyone go home in satisfaction, they'd be wrong. Not a chance. Not in the Gulf.

Uri Levy runs the popular football blog BabaGol, which covers football and politics focusing on the Middle East. Follow him on Twitter, and read his blog here


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