KUALA LUMPUR — The eight-month long blockade of Qatar by a number of its regional neighbors is to be breached on Monday evening by a soccer team.
The United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt cut all ties, including diplomatic and travel, with Qatar in June 2017, accusing the country of supporting terrorism.
Despite such regional tensions, Al Gharafa of Qatar will play at the Abu Dhabi home of Al Jazira, the champion of the UAE, in the opening round of games in the 2018 Asian Champions League.
Al Gharafa arrived in the Emirati capital on Saturday, with manager Bulent Uygun trying to treat the game as a normal contest.
“We will be playing a strong Al Jazira team on their home ground but for us it is like any other match,” Ugyen told reporters. “We are not looking at it as though it is something out of the ordinary.”
The group stage of Asia’s leading club competition will feature 12 meetings between teams from Qatar and those from UAE and Saudi Arabia.
UAE requests to play those game in a third country was rejected by the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), which operates the tournament containing 32 teams split into eight groups of four.
“Clubs from Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates should be played on a home and away basis in 2018 as per the AFC regulations,” the AFC said in a statement published on its website on Jan. 28.
The soccer federations of both U.A.E. and Saudi Arabia accepted the decision though expressed reservations about how it had been made.
There is still no solution, however, to the issues between Saudi Arabia and Iran with the two countries cutting diplomatic ties in 2016. On Monday, Tractor Sazi will host Al-Ahli of Jeddah in Oman, rather than Iran.
According to reports in Iran, the president of the country’s federation has asked FIFA president Gianni Infantino to intervene and help settle the dispute.
On the field, teams from the West Asia division will be seeking to win the trophy for only the second time since 2005. The tournament is divided into two geographic zones until the final for travel and financial reasons.
The two losing finalists from 2016 and 2017 meet in the opening round in Saudi Arabia as Al-Hilal hosts Al-Ain of the U.A.E.
In the east, big-spending Tianjin Quanjian is making a first appearance in the eastern half of the draw and kicks off with a home tie against Kitchee of Hong Kong.
The Chinese Super League team has Alexandre Pato of Brazil and Belgian international Axel Witsel. Tianjin’s new coach Paulo Sousa is looking forward to the club’s first continental campaign.
“Quanjian’s Champions League appearance is a huge boost for Chinese football clubs, and we are confident that we can defeat every opponent in the following games,” said Sousa.
Elsewhere Shanghai SIPG, with over $100 million of Brazilian talent in Hulk and Oscar, travels to Japanese champion Kawasaki Frontale.
Jeonbuk Motors returns to the tournament it won in 2016 after being barred from defending its title the following year. The South Korean club was punished after a scout was found guilty of bribing referees in the 2013 K-League season.
Story: John Duerden