x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Gulf Cup: Old pals act between UAE and Kuwait ends now

Love and mutual respect do not win football games and as much as the teams have an off-field camaraderie, their ambition is to win the high-stakes regional tournament.

UAE coach Mahdi Ali, in white cap, speaks with the team hoping to make their piece of Gulf Cup history ahead of today's semi-final. Hicham Tiknioune / UAE FA
UAE coach Mahdi Ali, in white cap, speaks with the team hoping to make their piece of Gulf Cup history ahead of today's semi-final. Hicham Tiknioune / UAE FA

In 1968, at the Mexico Olympics, the Bahraini contingent at the Games approached the Fifa president, Sir Stanley Rous, with an idea.

Prince Khalid Al Faisal Al Saud of Saudi Arabia, and Sheikh Muhammad bin Khalifa Al Khalifa, the head of the Bahrain Football Association, proposed a new tournament to unite the Arabian Gulf nations of Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar.

Rous gave his blessing, and the seed was sown for what would grow to become the Gulf Cup of Nations that we see today.

At the time, however, the reasons behind the notion of a Gulf Cup were as much political as they were sporting. Bahrain was in the middle of a dispute over its borders, its sovereignty even. Iran had, over a decade earlier, declared the state (Bahrain would become a kingdom in 2002) its 14th province, a unilateral decision rejected by Bahrain and Britain, which still ruled the Trucial States.

When in 1969, King Faisal of Saudi Arabia gave the go ahead for the first Gulf Cup to be held in Bahrain, it was part of a wider declaration of support by its Arab neighbours. Iran eventually dropped its claim.

On March 27, 1970, the first Khaleeji became a reality. As an official show of unity between the Gulf countries, it preceded the Gulf Cooperation Council by 11 years.

Forty-two years on, with the region experiencing cultural and political change, the tournament has in many ways come full circle. And when on January 5, Khaleeji 21 kicked off in the presence of both founders, Prince Khalid and Sheikh Muhammad, the overriding theme was once again the unity of the eight competing nations (the six GCC countries, Iraq and Yemen).

To outsiders, the Arabian Gulf nations would seem to have far more in common than not. The countries share language and religion, and their cultures can seem indistinguishable to those unaccustomed to life in this region. Affinity between the nations too, is often too keenly spelt out. Listening to the post-match interviews at Khaleeji 21 you are struck by the amount of praise and best wishes traded between rival players and mangers.

But do not be fooled. While this outward show of fraternal love may well endure off the pitch, on it there is nothing that the Arabian Gulf nations enjoy more than putting one over on one of their neighbours.

It wasn't always like this, and a truly competitive Gulf Cup was a long time in the making. After several predictable tournaments, it was only a matter of time that fierce local rivalries would develop. And the more local the rival, the fiercer the competitive edge to the match.

In the early years only one rivalry mattered; Iraq v Kuwait. The rest were mere lambs to the slaughter with Qatar, the UAE and even Saudi Arabia, never mind the weaker Oman and Bahrain, routinely thrashed by the big two.

Despite the continued dominance of Iraq and Kuwait until 1990, the other teams were making their own breakthroughs. The UAE qualified for the 1990 World Cup, although they would not win a Gulf Cup title until 2007. Qatar became the first country to break the Iraq-Kuwait duopoly in 1992. But it was Saudi Arabia that proved to be the team of the 1990s and early 21st century, qualifying for the 1994, 1998, 2002 and 2006 World Cups and winning the Gulf Cup in 1994, 2002, 2003.

As football power became more evenly distributed, the competition, flourished. The first 20 years brought only two Gulf Cup champions; the last 10 have brought five.

Today's semi-finals will carry with them their own baggage. In 2007, the UAE's dramatic, last minute 3-2 win over Kuwait set them on the way to their one and only Khaleeji triumph.

It remains one of the most memorable matches in the Gulf Cup's modern era, one that Kuwait will be looking to avenge at Bahrain National Stadium. Meanwhile the other semi-final is between Iraq, whose last title win was back in 1988, and one of two countries (Yemen the other) yet to win a Khaleeji, hosts Bahrain. Expect a white, or red, hot atmosphere as the locals pack Khalifa Sports City Stadium.

So far, Khaleeji 21 has perhaps been one of the most unpredictable of all Gulf Cups; surely what Rous would have envisioned all those years ago. The two men who turned the dream into a reality, meanwhile, will be privately smiling to themselves at their labour of love's long-overdue egalitarianism and genuine competitiveness.

When the players of the UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain and Iraq cross the white line on to the pitch later today, the enduring display of brotherhood should be, as most fans would surely demand, firmly cast aside. Love and mutual respect is all very well, but they don't win you football matches. Let the real games begin.

akhaled@thenational.ae

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