Qatar’s national team is hoping to separate an ongoing diplomatic dispute with some of its Gulf neighbours from the football field as it prepares to kick-off its campaign at the 2019 Asian Cup in the United Arab Emirates.
A 25-player Qatari squad, coaches, and officials landed in the Emirati city of Al Ain in a private jet after travelling via Kuwait for the start of the month-long event on Saturday.
The tournament comes amid the Gulf crisis, now into its 31st month, which has seen Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain impose a land, air and sea blockade on Doha after accusing it of supporting terrorism. Qatar has repeatedly and vehemently denied all allegations.
Despite the political tensions off the field, the players are eager to start the competition with their first match against Lebanon on Wednesday, Ali al-Salat, Qatar Football Association’s (QFA) media officer, told Al Jazeera.
“They are athletes, they are going to play football,” he said in a phone interview.” (There’s) no need to mix political issues with sports.”
“In the end, sport has a message of peace,” Salat added.
“So this is what we are going to do and we hope that we represent our country in a good way during the competition.”
Qatar is placed in Group E alongside regional rival Saudi Arabia, North Korea, and Lebanon.
The highly-anticipated Qatari-Saudi match is scheduled to take place on January 17 at Abu Dhabi’s Zayed Sports City Stadium.
In nine previous attempts, Qatar has never made it past the quarter-final stage.
Barred from entry
The Gulf crisis has already overshadowed the month-long sporting event after Saoud al-Mohannadi, vice president of QFA and the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), was denied entry into the UAE on Thursday, before eventually arriving on Friday.
“The airline mentioned that he was not allowed to get on the plane because he doesn’t have permission from the Emirati authorities,” Salat told Al Jazeera.
There were also reports of some Qatar-based journalists not being allowed to enter the Emirati nation to cover the event, after allegedly waiting at Dubai airport for 13 hours before returning to Doha.
“We have journalists from Al Kass and BeIN sports, but the reporters from the local newspapers didn’t come,” said Salat.
Qatar-based BeIN was temporarily blocked in the UAE in June 2017 after the diplomatic crisis started before being its channels were restored.
BeIN is the exclusive broadcaster of the Asian Cup tournament which will run until February 1.
— #AsianCup2019 (@afcasiancup) January 5, 2019
Meanwhile on the field, Salat said the 24-nation Asian Cup is good preparation for Qatar as it looks to host and compete in its first World Cup in 2022.
“We have a young generation – the average age of our team is 24 years,” he said. “So this Asian Cup is good for them to gain experience and to prepare themselves for the World Cup.”
Qatar beat rivals Australia, Japan, South Korea and the US in 2010 to claim hosting rights for the World Cup , becoming the first Arab country to do so.
Football’s governing body is currently studying a feasibility report for the expansion, with a final decision expected at the FIFA Council meeting in Miami in March.
Emirati official Aref al-Awani, who is the tournament director for the 17th edition of the Asian Cup, has said his country “would be willing to provide any help needed”.
Follow Saba Aziz on Twitter: @saba_aziz