ABU DHABI — The message to the D.J. was short and to the point: no Arabic music.
That was the edict from the organizers of the Asian Cup match here on Thursday, an attempt to limit even the opportunity for a flash point in the first soccer match between Saudi Arabia and Qatar since the start of a bitter political feud nearly two years ago. The dispute, and the Saudi-led blockade of Qatar, has so divided countries in the region that even the prematch music at the tournament is now viewed through that prism.
At other matches at the Asian Cup, the most important soccer event on the sprawling continent, the soundtrack has included music from the participating countries. That was not the case Thursday at the Zayed Sports City Stadium, where the sound system blasted western dance music in an effort to avoid even the risk of inflaming tensions between rival supporters.
In the case of Qatar, that support was limited to a Korean woman, a male student from China and band of Omanis who arrived during the second half after acquiring free tickets. Almost no Qatari fans have traveled to the tournament amid the blockade of the tiny emirate by a Saudi-led group of its neighbors, including the United Arab Emirates, that has made travel extremely difficult — and entry into the U.A.E. close to impossible.
In the end, in front of a stadium that was mostly empty — despite Saudi officials’ handing out free tickets and bussing in fans — Qatar was a comfortable 2-0 winner. The game was largely tension-free until Qatar’s exuberant on-field celebrations led to a minor skirmish with a despondent Saudi striker, one of few players from his team who did not head straight to the dressing room after the referee blew the final whistle.
Coaches from both teams had tried to play down the political cloud that had hung over Thursday’s game since the teams were drawn into the same first-round group months ago. After the game, they steered a similar course, brushing aside any questions related to matters out of their control, and instead focusing on the challenges awaiting them in the knockout rounds. Qatar, which won the group, will face Iraq; Saudi Arabia faces a more difficult game against Japan, a regional power.
“It has nothing to do with football so I won’t give a response,” Juan Antonio Pizzi, Saudi Arabia’s Argentine coach said in response to a question about the off-field tension. Félix Sánchez, Qatar’s Spanish coach, conceded only that hearing his team’s national anthem roundly jeered by most of the fans was a “difficult moment” for his players, but he concluded the game was played in a positive spirit on the field.
Controversy flared outside the lines, however. Local organizers were said to have reacted with fury after a commentator on the Qatar-owned network beIN Sports mentioned the blockade during the live broadcast of an earlier Iran-Iraq game. In response, the Saudi Sports Media Federation released a statement Thursday accusing beIN, which is broadcasting the tournament across the Middle East, of using its exclusive rights to push its political agenda.
The U.A.E. and Saudi Arabia have been in lock step in their opposition to Qatar, and that divide was visible in the stands. Behind the goal where Almoez Ali, the tournament’s top scorer, delivered the first of his two goals for Qatar, three men stood for the entire match, holding aloft two flags, one a Saudi one and the other Emirati, fused together.
Saudi efforts to boost crowd numbers included commandeering two desks at the entrance of the Bab al Qasr hotel, situated yards from the U.A.E.’s presidential palace. There, officials armed with fist-sized stacks of tickets, distributed them for free to fans — whether Saudi or not — with only one request: Support Saudi Arabia.
The efforts largely fell flat. The attendance was declared at just over 16,000, though the actual number of fans appeared far lower. Qatar had almost none: a Qatar soccer federation spokesman said as many as 2,000 fans would have made the trip in normal times. In the end, Qatar had to make do with a small and curious collection of followers that included Janko Yang, a 23-year-old Chinese student who grew fond of Qatar’s soccer team after its under-23 squad visited his hometown, Changzhou, last year.
At the other end of the stadium, Mary Lee, the Korean communications worker who has become relatively well-known around the team, had somehow snagged a seat in the media area. Sporting a silk dress she had made in the maroon and white colors of Qatar’s flag — a direct challenge to rules that forbid public support of Qatar in the U.A.E. — Lee, 45, vowed to stay at the tournament until her adopted country completes its run. (Asked to change clothing by security officials before she attended the tournament opener between the U.A.E. and Bahrain, Lee has been given dispensation to wear her elaborate outfit only at Qatar’s games.)
The most voluble support, though, came from the group of Omanis who had raced across the city after watching their team clinch berth in the knockout rounds with a 3-1 victory over Turkmenistan. Beneficiaries of the free Saudi tickets, they cheered Qatar’s players as they celebrated their victory. Oman has historically enjoyed a friendly relationship with all its neighbors, and has adopted a neutral role in the Gulf dispute.
“We are like one country, we are one people in the Gulf, and we are cheering for them because they haven’t got fans here,” said Abdullah Moqubuli, 30, before adding that he and his friends would have cheered for Saudi Arabia, too, had the Saudis managed to score a goal.
Sánchez, Qatar’s coach, acknowledged their contribution after the match.
“We appreciated it and we want to thank them because it’s important to us to have also some people with the team,” he said. Qatar’s captain, Hassan al-Haydos, had a similar message for Yang, the Chinese student.
“I’d like to thank him, and tell him to come to the next game,” al-Haydos said.
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