Politics Looms Over Empty Seats as Saudi Arabia Faces Qatar in Asian Cup

Mahmoud Khaled/EPA, via Shutterstock

ABU DHABI — Qatar forward Almoez Ali joined a small group of record-makers at the Asian Cup last week, becoming only the fourth player in the tournament’s history to score four goals in a single game. His exploits in his country’s 6-0 thrashing of North Korea were cheered by just one fan sporting the Gulf country’s colors.

That was one more than team officials expected.

That is because the Asian Cup is being played this month in the United Arab Emirates, one of the main players in the punishing Saudi Arabia-led blockade of Qatar that began in 2017 and already has led to inconveniences for visiting Qatari officials, visiting Qatari journalists and, clearly, given their tiny number, visiting Qatari fans. The looming specter of the political dispute has produced a surreal air around Qatar’s matches, one that is expected to be repeated at its showdown against Saudi Arabia on Thursday at Zayed City Sports Stadium.

Because of the geopolitical implications, that match could be one of the most-watched games of the tournament, though it will most likely not include many, if any, Qataris in the stands. The official attendance figure for the Qatar-North Korea game on Sunday in Al Ain was announced as 452, though several people who attended said the actual number most likely was closer to 100. Similarly low attendance figures have been a feature of the tournament, Asia’s most important soccer championship, in its first two weeks.

The one flag-waving fan in Qatar’s maroon colors Sunday was a South Korean woman who had traveled from her homeland to root for Qatar, according to Qatari officials. Two other unidentified men sat nearby behind a Qatari flag, a rare spot of color in a sea of white seats. The sparse crowd only avoided setting another tournament record, for the lowest attendance, because of two groups of fans bused in by North Korea’s delegation.

The soporific atmosphere most likely will give way to something far different and far more political when Qatar and Saudi Arabia meet to decide the winner of Group E. The countries have not met on the soccer field since diplomatic ties between the countries were severed 18 months ago, but the game’s location in this Emirate capital adds another layer of tension.

“That’s almost more difficult to imagine than the U.S. national soccer team playing Iran in Tehran,” said Neil Quilliam, a senior research fellow with the Middle East and North Africa program at London’s Chatham House, a British foreign-affairs think tank. “There will be some jittery people in Qatar hoping their players make it home.”

Political intrigue large and small is nothing new at the Asian Cup. On Tuesday, Palestine played Jordan, which has been home to Palestinian refugees for over half a century. A day later, Iran faced Iraq. Yemen, which is on the brink of famine amid a prolonged Saudi-led assault on Houthi rebels, is among the first-time participants in the event.

But the main crisis at this year’s tournament is the ongoing blockade of Qatar. The U.A.E. and Saudi Arabia have been in lock step in their opposition to Qatar, which they have accused of financing terrorism, interfering in their domestic affairs and growing too close to Iran. The countries were especially incensed by Qatar’s support for a range of activists across the Arab world, including the political Islamists that other Gulf monarchs consider a threat to their rule.

Qatar’s leaders have denied the accusations of interference and of financing terrorism, arguing that it is their country’s independence that has most angered their neighbors. But the…

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