The slogan of the Asian Cup football tournament in the UAE is ‘bringing Asia together’ but with various regional rivalries and timeworn continental disputes that was always a suggestion more in hope than expectation.
Of all the potential clashes – North Korea/South Korea & Japan/China amongst them – the one that came charged with the clearest political intrigue on Thursday evening was that of regional foes Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
A Saudi-led diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar, with the chief backing of Bahrain and the UAE, has been in force for more than 18 months and that has impacted all facets of life, including football.
What was once a 30-minute flight between the two nations is now a circuitous route that the football team had to take via Kuwait.
There were claims – denied by the Local Organising Committee chief – that a leading Qatari football official, Saoud al-Mohannadi, had initially been denied entry to the nation on the eve of the tournament and security has been noticeably tightened around the squad.
That’s extended to when and where the Qatari players can venture on their downtime as well as increasing the standard lone police escort to and from matches from one to five cars for the Qataris, ensuring each side of their bus was protected.
The one impact that rips at the fabric of the sport though is that a game built on fan support, passion, noise and colour has seen those elements limited to just one side of the divide with a ban on Qatari citizens traveling to the UAE only recently having been slightly eased.
Reports pre-match suggested that the Saudi Arabian Football Federation had purchased close to 20,000 tickets to distribute to fans to ensure that what was always going to be a partisan crowd was also a sizeable one.
In the end there was barely 17,000 inside the Zayed Sports City Stadium in Abu Dhabi, with all bar one of that number in the Saudi corner.
Although there was a curious band of supporters – perhaps 50 or so - that had driven across from neighbouring Oman to offer Qatar their backing as ‘neutral football fans’ the only visible Qatari presence came from a most unlikely source.
Mary Lee is a Korean woman from Seoul who describes herself as the nation’s biggest football fan and who has travelled halfway across Asia to emerge in the peculiar position of being the only legitimate Qatar fan at the tournament.
Sat by herself, holding a Qatari flag and dressed in a kind of maroon and white onesie that she had designed and made in Korea, she explained to TRT World that not even the politically charged match could stop her from supporting the nation.
“I love Qatar and have so many Qatari friends and this is my joy that I can’t stop – I went to China, to Qatar and even the World Cup in Russia (where Qatar didn’t participate) to support Qatar.
“Even if Qatar and Korea meet in the final I will support Qatar and because I’m the only Qatari supporter here it just makes me want to support them even more.
“I have a ticket to return to Korea on February 2, the day after the final, because I’m convinced that Qatar will win the Asian Cup.
“I’ve come here also because I know the political situation and that people are in trouble so that’s why I’ve come here to cheer more.”
In this case Lee was, quite literally, the happiest woman in the stadium as Qatar defeated Saudi Arabia 2-0 to top their group and set up a Round of 16 clash with Iraq whilst the Saudis now meet Japan.
Whilst the match itself was generally played in good spirits there were a handful of clashes between the teams and a minor incident at fulltime involving Saudi forward Mohammed Al-Saiari and a number of Qatari players.
The moment that will define the fixture though was the round booing from the crowd every time that Qatar approached the Saudi goal and, noticeably, during the playing of the national anthem.
That was an incident that the Qatar coach, Felix Sanchez, described to TRT World as disappointing whilst saying that any formal complaint over the issue is out of his hands.
“People have the right to do whatever they think, I think it’s not nice but what can I do because from our perspective we want to respect everyone.
“Of course, it’s nice to have people supporting you in this kind of environment but the players are professionals and so they need to be able to play with people supporting you and without.”
When the fulltime whistle blew the Qatar players did venture over to celebrate in front of that band of neutral Omani supporters – perhaps not quite realising what was going on – whilst Sanchez also thanked the lone, Korean-based, Qatar support for her contribution.
“It’s great that someone from Korea comes here to support us and especially here given that we don’t have too many supporters to see someone like that behind the team.
“On the Oman fans, of course it’s nice to have some supporters and we wanted to celebrate the win because it’s good for us and we wanted to do that with those that had come to support us.”
In the end the large band of Saudi fans, the unexpected gathering of neutral Omani supporters and the idiosyncratic, Korean-based, Qatar backer all slunk off into the Abu Dhabi evening without a hint of trouble.
Maybe, just maybe, football can bring Asia together.