After the win over heavyweights Saudi Arabia, tiny Qatar look a real threat in the knockout stages of the Asian Cup. The success of the 2022 World Cup hosts comes despite a regional trade blockade and power struggle.
Saudi Arabia fans expressed their dislike of Qatar with fervor, but in the 80th minute of their Asian Cup group clash on Thursday they suddenly fell silent at the Zayed Sports City Stadium in Abu Dhabi.
Almoez Ali had made it 2-0 to Qatar and that's how it stayed. Under normal circumstances, 2,000, perhaps 3,000 Qatari spectators would have been in the ground supporting the outsiders, but political tensions mean only a few cheers were heard.
Qatar's players did not seem to mind. It was their third victory in three matches at the Asian Cup in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Their goal ratio is 10:0. Despite their limitations, Qatar are suddenly a force heading into the knockout stages.
The game had been billed in the media as the "Cold War in the Gulf" because in June 2017, Saudi Arabia imposed a trade blockade on Qatar.
The reasons: the small country's alleged ties to terrorist organizations and a perceived relationship with Iran, which was too close for the liking of regional rivals. Egypt, Bahrain and the UAE joined in and curtailed diplomatic relations with Doha. Many Qatari citizens had to leave the UAE, host nation of the Asian Cup.
No support from home
The consequences: the Qatari team had to fly to the tournament via Kuwait, as direct connections are suspended. One of Qatar's top officials was initially prevented from entering, as were several journalists. The few reporters who now report for Qatari media belong to other nationalities. The team plays virtually without any support from home. This became particularly clear in their second group match in Al Ain against North Korea, when organizers gave the attendance as 452. It was 16,000 against Saudi Arabia. Many Emirati locals and Saudis sang together against Qatar.
Another issue is television broadcasts.
"In many hotels in the host country, it is impossible to follow the Asian Cup," says Tariq Panja, who reports on the tournament for the New York Times. The rights holder is BeIN-Sports, a pay station which emerged from Qatar's Al Jazeera network. For months now, there has been a conflict over the pirate channel "beoutQ", which illegally transmits football in Saudi Arabia and other countries.
FIFA's plans seem unrealistic
In view of these tensions, the wish of FIFA president Gianni Infantino to have a 48-team World Cup in 2022 seems unrealistic. Qatar is the host and has been planning for 32 teams. A lack of extra stadiums, training facilities and hotels in the tiny Gulf state means Qatar would need support from countries in the region for an expanded tournament. But they don't have many friendly neighbors at present.
"There's tension in this region, and it's up to the leaders to deal with it," Infantino said in Dubai. "But maybe it's easier to talk about a football project than more complicated things."
But the last Pan Arab Games, for example, took place in 2011 in Doha. Since then the region has not been able to agree on a future host. Journalist James M. Dorsey has described in his blog 'Mideastsoccer' how officials from Saudi Arabia and the Emirates want to thwart Qatar's plans for the World Cup.
Infantino also wants to create a new Club World Cup and worldwide Nations League thanks to an offer of $25 billion from investors including some linked to Saudi Arabia. Qatar, in contrast, will not want anything that overshadows 2022.
Football as security
For now, Qatar's long-term strategy of using sport for global influence seems to be working.
"Qatar sees sporting events as a kind of life insurance," says political scientist Danyel Reiche of the American University of Beirut, recalling the Gulf War of 1990-91. Back then, Iraq invaded smaller neighbor Kuwait and the United States helped liberate the country. "The Qataris want to be so strongly linked to sport that something like that cannot happen," adds Reiche.
The area of Saudi Arabia is 200 times larger than Qatar. Doha has the second-smallest army in the Middle East, with 12,000 troops. Saudi Arabia has 500,000. Although Qatar is home to one of the largest US military bases in the region, the whims of Donald Trump mean it could close at any time. Therefore, Doha is investing in "soft power", a strategy that is not based on military action, but on a cultural, sporting exchange. In addition to the World Cup, this includes many other sporting exploits, including the purchase of Paris Saint-Germain and the sponsoring of Barcelona and Bayern Munich.
Qataris fear country will open up too much
The two and a half million inhabitants of Qatar enjoy privileges in education and health care, and their per capita income is one of the highest in the world. Many fear that international criticism of human rights violations surrounding the construction of World Cup venues and the impact of tournament itself could over-liberalize their country.
"They are afraid that their old rituals will be watered down," says Florian Bauer, a journalist for Germany's ARD television network who has spent time in Qatar researching the nation and its new football obsession.
Recently, alcohol prices in predominantly Muslim Qatar have been massively increased by new taxes. It was a concession to conservatives, because only with domestic political stability can the foreign policy "soft power" drive work. Be it women's rights, working conditions or press freedom - the Qatari monarchy knows it needs to make progress if it wants to be recognized by the Western world.
But major reforms could put more conservative neighbors such as Saudi Arabia, Iran or Bahrain under pressure. Qatar wants to attract investors through football and strengthen its tourism. Doha has adjusted to the blockade with new transport routes for food.
Now at the Asian Cup, Qatar's coach and players politely refuse to discuss political problems. They want to let their football do the talking. And so far it has worked. The team has an average age of just 24. The last 16 clash in against Iraq on Tuesday looks very winnable.