ABU DHABI (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia and Qatar meet at the Asian Cup on Thursday for the first time since a bitter political dispute severed ties between the Gulf Arab states more than a year ago.
The match will decide who finishes top of Group E with both sides already qualified having taken a maximum of six points from their previous two games.
Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt have imposed a political and economic boycott of Qatar since June 2017 over allegations that Doha supports terrorism, a charge Qatar denies.
Both sides, meeting for the first time since the dispute broke out, said on Wednesday they were focused on the game, not politics.
“It will be like any other game for us,” Saudi Arabian forward Fahad al-Muwallad told reporters. “We only think about the pitch,” he said.
Qatar is hoping to impress at the tournament, in which their best performance was reaching the quarter finals in 2000 and 2011, ahead of their World Cup debut in four years’ time as hosts.
But the team is likely to face a hostile crowd at the 43,000-seat Zayed Sports City stadium in Abu Dhabi. Qataris are largely banned from visiting Asian Cup host United Arab Emirates, which also cut ties. Saudi Arabian fans are expected to turnout in large numbers.
“Sports is nothing related to politics,” Qatar head coach Felix Sanchez said. “It is only one game for us. An important one, but a football game.”
Qatar head into the Gulf derby on top of Group E with a superior goal difference after thrashing North Korea 6-0, including a record-equalling four goals in a single match from striker Almoez Ali.
Group E’s winner will face Japan or Uzbekistan from Group F in the knockout stage and the runner-up meets Iran or Iraq.