War and geopolitics cast shadow over Asian Cup in Qatar
Palestine, Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Iran are among the countries carrying the burden of war and geopolitical tensions at the AFC Asian Cup in Qatar.
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Palestine’s national team arrived in Qatar last week to take part in the 2023 AFC Asian Cup, which is scheduled to kick off on Jan. 12.
Draped in traditional fishnet patterned keffiyehs symbolizing resistance, the team’s arrival comes amid Israel’s ongoing bombardment and ground invasion of Gaza, which has killed more than 22,835 people in the besieged coastal strip since the beginning of the war on Oct. 7—a figure than amounts to approximately one in every 100 people in Gaza.
The war has also taken its toll on Palestinian football. According to a report by the Palestinian Football Association last month, 85 Palestinian athletes, including 55 football players, have also been killed since the beginning of the war. The figures included 18 children and 37 teenagers. Since then, more names have been added to the list, including Hani Al-Masry, the former football player and general manager of the national Olympic team.
Israeli troops also converted Yarmouk Stadium—one of Gaza’s oldest sports facilities—into a makeshift internment camp, where Palestinians, including women and children, were rounded up and detained in humiliating fashion.
Some of the Palestinian players taking part in the AFC tournament have also been impacted by the war, including Mahmoud Wadi and Mohammed Saleh who have family trapped in Gaza where their homes have been destroyed.
“They are suffering,” the team's coach, Makram Daboub, told AFP.
Meanwhile, Israel is absent from the list of participating nations in the AFC Asian Cup. Despite being geographically located in Asia, Israel has not taken part in the tournament since 1968 and was later expelled from the Asian football confederation following a Kuwait-led motion in 1974. After spending the next twenty years without an official confederation, Israel joined Europe’s UEFA confederation in 1994.
Nevertheless, the AFC tournament will still draw attention to the escalating conflict in the Middle East region, especially since 10 Arab nations are expected to compete in the 24-team event. Among the most notable names (excluding Palestine) are Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, and Lebanon, all of whom have played an indirect role in the ongoing war.
Qatar, which is hosting the tournament just 13 months after becoming the first Arab nation to host the World Cup, is a particularly interesting case. The tiny Gulf state has played an outsized role in brokering negotiations between Israel and Hamas on multiple occasions since the latter launched its attack on southern Israel on Oct. 7. Qatar’s mediation efforts helped secure the release of more than 50 hostages and brokered a humanitarian pause that lasted nearly a week.
Qatar has a history of playing a mediating role in international affairs. It has facilitated discussions between rival Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas in 2006, assisted in bringing Lebanese leaders together to form a political agreement during the 2008 crisis, hosted a peace process for Sudan during the Darfur conflict, and facilitated talks between the Taliban and the U.S. in 2013. Its current role amid the ongoing Israel-Hamas war has once again thrust the Arab nation into the spotlight.
Beyond its role as a mediator, Qatari officials also announced that the AFC Asian Cup will be utilized to support the Palestinian cause. Revenue from tournament ticket sales will reportedly be donated to those impacted by the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.
“We will be certain that this corporate social responsibility initiative will benefit those most affected, and that football fulfils its role as a support mechanism for people during the most difficult of times,” said Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, a member of the ruling family and chairman of the AFC local organizing committee.
Qatar will begin its latest AFC campaign on Friday against Lebanon, a country that appears to be on the brink of war with Israel. Hezbollah, the Shia Islamist political party and militant group, and the Israeli army have repeatedly traded fire across the border, sparking concerns of a wider regional conflict.
Earlier this week, Hezbollah—a close ally of Hamas—launched a drone strike on an Israeli command centre. Israel retaliated with air strikes that reportedly killed three Hezbollah members. Earlier this month, Israel launched a targeted strike that killed Hamas’s deputy leader Salah al-Arouri in Dahiyeh, a suburb in the Lebanese capital Beirut.
Hezbollah’s prominent backer, Iran, is also expected to take part in the tournament. The country is one of the most successful teams in Asia, having won three consecutive AFC Asian Cups between 1968 and 1976. The team has historically been a source of pride for Iran’s Islamic theocracy—one of the world’s leading human rights abusers. However, in the wake of widespread protests that began after the death of 22-year-old Masha Amini in police custody in September 2022, the team has used its platform to protest the Islamic regime.
During their opening match against England at the 2022 World Cup, Iran’s starting eleven opted not to sing the national anthem. Their powerful silent protest angered regime officials, who threatened the players with severe consequences upon their return to Iran if they did not sing the anthem. During the second match against Wales, the Iranian team half-heartedly sang the anthem.
Iran’s political landscape will continue to shadow its team at the upcoming tournament. Earlier this week, regime officials flogged an Iranian woman who had been sentenced to 74 lashes for refusing to wear the mandatory hijab. The woman later shared her story on Instagram, describing how she was handcuffed to a bed and forced to wear a headscarf before being whipped across different parts of her body.
Another regime whose reputation for human rights abuses precedes it is Saudi Arabia, which is among the most successful teams competing at the tournament. Similar to its regional competitor Iran, Saudi has won three Asian Cups in its history and is coming off an impressive performance at the 2022 World Cup that included a victory against future champions Argentina in the group stage.
Earlier this week, Saudi Arabia faced Palestine in a pre-tournament friendly that ended in a 0-0 draw. While the match carried no professional stakes, it took place in the backdrop of a meeting between Saudi Crown Prince and de facto ruler Mohammed bin Salman and U.S. officials in an attempt to shape the future of post-war Gaza.
According to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Saudi Arabia was open to normalizing relations with Israel but only with assurance of a clear pathway towards a permanent ceasefire and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.
Blinken’s statement suggests that Riyadh carries a great deal of influence over the future of the region, though it remains to be seen whether it leverages it.
Prior to the Oct. 7 attack, Saudi Arabia was discussing a potential deal whereby the kingdom would normalize relations with Israel in exchange for a myriad of benefits from the U.S., including support for a Saudi civilian nuclear program. At the time, the issue of a Palestinian state was largely ignored.
In the wake of the war, however, Saudi Arabia has taken a leading diplomatic role in calling for a ceasefire and denouncing Israel’s military aggression. And though this may seem like an attempt to ingratiate themselves to the Palestinians, Saudi’s primary intentions is to maintain a leading diplomatic role in the region and to bring attention back to its Vision 2030 ambitions.
Sports, in particular, have been among Saudi’s most prominent objectives. The kingdom has made strategic investments in sports ranging from football—where Saudi Arabia purchased a controlling share in English Premier League team Newcastle United and transformed its domestic league by luring superstars such as Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar—to golf, Formula One and boxing. Even the war hasn’t deterred the kingdom from its ambitions.
In October, Saudi hosted its annual investment spectacle dubbed “Davos in the Desert,” which drew a gaggle of billionaires, tech titans and grifters, including former White House envoy Jared Kushner and Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon. Days later, the kingdom assembled a cast of characters like Cristiano Ronaldo, The Undertaker, Kanye West and Eminem to watch boxing in the desert. A week later, the WWE returned to Riyadh for its biannual spectacle.
Saudi Arabia will be aiming to produce a strong showing at the 2023 AFC Asian Cup as it continues its ascendence as one of the most influential nations in football. In the last year alone, the kingdom was elected to the FIFA Council, and secured the rights to host the 2027 Asian Cup, and is expected to host the 2034 World Cup—an event that will serve as the culmination of its sporting ambitions.
“As we in Saudi Arabia undertake our own transformation through our national “Vision 2030”, we are focused on the future. We want to use our long-standing passion for football as a catalyst for the continued development of our country,” bin Salman was quoted as saying in Saudi Arabia’s bid book to host the 2027 Asian Cup.
“As a nation, we understand the power of football.”
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