Not Just Another Match: Saudi vs. Qatar


Though it’s 7 p.m. on a Thursday night, the café is silent. All eyes are focused solely on the TV screen. No one dares to start a conversation during one of the most awaited football games: Qatar vs. Saudi Arabia. One look at the anticipation on people’s faces and you know this is more than just football.

I glance at the screen and see the ball shake the Saudi team’s net. The silence in the café is immediately interrupted by loud roars and clapping from everyone around me, including kids, who I’m pretty sure have no idea what’s really going on. The tension in the room transforms into glee, and one man shouts “Ha! Saudi who?” I smile and think to myself, is this what happens when the Gulf’s geopolitics get caught up with the world’s most popular game?

On Thursday, Jan. 17, Saudi Arabia played Qatar in the Asian Football Confederation Cup, adding a sporting dimension to the ongoing conflict between the Gulf countries. On June 5, 2017, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt cut diplomatic ties with Qatar, accusing the country of funding terrorism. Although Qatar denied the allegations, the conflict between the countries is ongoing, spilling over into the world of sports.

This in fact made Thursday’s match much more than just a game to the people of both countries. The tournament is being hosted by the United Arab Emirates, a country where it’s illegal to show support for Qatar. However, many Iraqis and Omanis took to the stands and cheered for Qatar throughout the game. The game ended with a 2-0 win for Qatar, earning the team the top spot in Group E, which consists of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Lebanon and DPR Korea. Qatar will now face Iraq on Tuesday, while Saudi Arabia, who qualified as runners-up in Group E, will face Japan on Monday.

All three previous Asian Cup encounters in 1984, 1992 and 2000 between Saudi Arabia and Qatar ended in a draw. This is the first time Qatar has won against Saudi Arabia, and the timing could not have been more interesting.

The drama started even before the referee blew his whistle. Saudi Arabian fans angered many by booing loudly during the Qatari national anthem. After a video of the booing trended on Twitter, some Saudi fans applauded the act, while Qataris found it disrespectful and shameful, especially since the slogan of the competition is “bringing Asia together.”

[First tweet translation: Thank God for winning and congratulations to the Qatar audience! Even though a lot of people wished for our failure … God willed that we win. And about what happened [booing the national anthem] I think there is no need for that. Each action has a reaction, and love and respect will always be between us. I don’t think one person represents a full audience. Thank you everyone.]

[Second tweet translation: God give you strength, and really your words are true.]

“This match is like a football war between Qatar and all three Gulf countries that have been blockading Qatar. Many of the Saudi Arabians were saying, ‘why are you associating football with politics’ after the game when we started to celebrate, but what’s their reasoning behind the booing during the national anthem?” Ali Al-Thani, a journalism junior at Northwestern University in Qatar, told The Daily Q.

Though Qataris are not allowed inside the UAE, the stands were not empty. Omani and Iraqi fans rushed to the stands to support Qatar throughout the match, and were praised and thanked by Qatari fans on social media.

[Translation: Thanks to our Omani people for their support and encouragement at a time when the Qatari audience missed the country’s team.]

[Translation: Thank you from the heart to all the Iraqi and Omani audiences that were able to support Al Anabi.]

Despite both Saudi Arabia and Qatar already qualifying to the next round regardless of Thursday’s game, the score sparked some outrage from Saudi fans on social media. After the match, the hashtag #قطر_السعودية (which translates to #Qatar_Saudi) trended on Twitter, with Saudis questioning whether Qatar deserves to feel happy for winning due to the diverse origins of the players on their team.

[Translation: A mercenary team, playing for money and not the flag, even in football you don’t trust in your people]

However, others quickly jumped to defend Qatar, and unsurprisingly, politics paved its way into the argument.

“All countries nationalize athletes, which is an issue in international sports. It is true that Qatar and a couple of countries, Turkey is another one, the UAE is another, nationalize many more athletes than other countries do,” said Craig LaMay, associate professor in residence at NU-Q and an expert in sports journalism. “The idea that because the athletes are nationalized athletes that they don’t care for the country they play for, or to be more to the point, they’re paid that they don’t care, just doesn’t square to the facts.”

That said, social media debates weren’t the highlight of the night, but rather how Qataris and Qatar’s residents came together to support their team during the game. Cafés, malls and hotels in Doha that streamed the match live became a place for people from different cultures and backgrounds to support Qatar. Crowds’ reactions to player Almoez Ali’s unforgettable two goals illustrate this. In one café, thefirst goal made some viewers jump and clap, shouting “Moez, you beast!” at the screen. The second, however, generated another kind of happiness: the happiness of knowing Qatar owned the game, and Almoez was definitely the star of it.  Almoez Ali is a Sudanese-born footballer who plays for the Al-Duhail team in the Qatar Stars Leagueand in the Qatar National Team as a forward.

Despite the intense geopolitics between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the players on both teams showed respect for each other during and after the game. A Saudi player was even interviewed by beIN Sports, a Qatar-based network,after the match. The football spirit of the players impressed many, and regardless of the criticisms from some fans, many showed respect to their opponents.

[Arabic translation: To be honest, most of the comments from the (non-media) Saudi accounts are the culmination of respect and sportsmanship … I’m so glad.]

Now, all we can say is hard luck for Saudi Arabia and congratulations to Qatar!

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