Arabian Gulf Cup: The ties that bind us
December 5, 2019 | 6:54 PM
by Gautam Viswanathan

Oman may now be out of the 24th Arabian Gulf Cup, but the camaraderie, welcoming spirit and friendly nature Omanis are known for – ask anyone who’s met an Omani and they’ll tell you that – will continue to live on at this tournament, not just because that is the message the organisers wish to send, but because that is the true message of sporting events that bring people together. Always.

'What does that sign mean?’ " I asked our Qatari guide Khalid, pointing to an Arabic sign that was illuminated in simple white, in contrast to Doha’s rapidly changing glitzy corner of West Bay.

“It means ‘welcome, everyone, to everyone’s Doha’,” he responded, his voice quietly swelling with pride.

Welcome. Such a simple message with such a powerful meaning. A message that our Qatari hosts have repeated time and time again with the sincerest intent during this Gulf Cup. The theme song of this year’s tournament began – it was liberally sprinkled with the word ‘ahlan’ (Arabic for ‘welcome’). A word that the Qataris truly lived up to, welcoming with open arms the teams that travelled to the peninsular nation to compete in the 24th Arabian Gulf Cup, as well as the fans who had made the journey to support their Arab heroes, many of whom are household names in their home countries.

It was a message that was at the core of His Highness Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani’s speech, as he addressed a packed Khalifa Stadium in Doha, as well as hundreds of thousands who were watching the tournament on TV, ahead of the first game between Qatar and Iraq.

“In the name of every Qatari, we welcome everyone to everyone’s Doha,” he said, to a roar from the audience that rattled the arena’s rafters, before an elaborately choreographed fireworks display temporarily turned the dark blue night sky purple.

Sport welcomes everyone. It does not discriminate on the basis of who you are or where you come from. This Gulf Cup – one of several high-profile sporting events that the nation will host over the next couple of years before football’s biggest showpiece, the FIFA World Cup, is played in Qatar in 2022.

T Weekly was invited to watch the Gulf Cup in Qatar first hand, and what we saw on the ground did not disappoint. In fact, it left all of us quite impressed. The Arabian Gulf Cup, a biennial football tournament that features the six nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council – Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Bahrain – as well as Iraq and Yemen, is a tournament that fires up the passions and stokes sporting fervour in everyone in the Khaleej, be they the Arabs of these nations or the foreign nationals that have come here and made these nations their second home.

The opening game of this showpiece event was of course attended by the representatives of many of these nations, among them, Saad Al Saadi, Oman’s Minister for Sports Affairs.

“Those who watch the Gulf Cup tournaments can see the tangible development of the Gulf Cup teams, which have earned continental and global recognition as a result of continued government support and the tireless efforts of the administrative, technical and media bodies of the Gulf Football Associations,” he said to the Oman News Agency, the Sultanate’s state-run news agency.

Before the tournament had begun, Oman national football team coach Erwin Koeman had said, “The Gulf Cup is a competition of a different nature and all the participating teams have players with a spirit of teamwork.”

The spirit of teamwork was indeed evident across the host nation, where nearly 1,500 people – many of them volunteers – had been mobilised to the two stadia as well as across Doha to ensure that the fans who did travel to see their sporting heroes play would have an easy time getting to the venues, as well as fond memories while they were there.

“We appreciate the initiative of 900 personnel and 500 volunteers who came forward to make the journey of the fans and their participating teams memorable,” said officials from the organising committee. Qatar had also ensured that fans felt not only welcome, but safe in their country, with representatives of the Ministry of Interior saying, “Security preparations are completed hours before the start of the 24th Arabian Gulf Cup. Various safety and security units will be available earlier to help the public enter and exit safely.”

Even before the first ball had been kicked, supporters who had come to Qatar were keen to send out a singular message of solidarity; sport did indeed transcend borders, bringing together people who shared a common passion. At Souq Waqif, a traditional marketplace that was alive with thousands of people, many of whom spent their evenings shopping at the hundreds of shops that sold traditional goods, handicrafts, jewellery, spices and so much more, or went to have dinner at one of the many restaurants with their friends and families, it was truly heart warming to see Qataris with their headgear, their long red or white cloths (also known as gutras), fastened with the agal, a black cloth ring that fits neatly over their heads, share a meal with their Omani counterparts, instantly recognisable in their traditional cylindrical kummahs or sporting their mussars – a turban worn by men from the Sultanate on formal occasions.

Adding another element of togetherness to this meeting of Arab compatriots was the cuisine they ate. Many of them were seated around tables containing tandoori chicken, unmistakable in its signature orange spice rub, with its heady aroma wafting towards us, garnished with onions and served with a spicy mint chutney.

A striking example of how different cultures contributed to a melting pot that enabled people to bond over shared values, and share their experiences with those who wanted to know more about them.

Sport, therefore, it seemed, was the universal language that had brought people together to meet and get to know one another. Food, another shared joy, only went to make this connection even better. Interactions like these ensure that these connections remain strong long after the tournament is over, the fans bid goodbye and and go back home.

This theme of brotherhood and togetherness recurred throughout our time in Doha. On the day of Oman’s game against Kuwait - the second game in Group B, as we neared the Abdullah Bin Khalifa Stadium, we could hear the unmistakable sounds of bagpipes playing celebratory tunes, accompanied by the rhythmic, energetic beating of drums. Quite clearly, the fans who had arrived for the game were expressing their joy and excitement before surprise there.

What did take us by surprise was that the Omani and Kuwaiti supporters were celebrating together. While the game on the pitch was of course important, what was of greater value to them was the camaraderie and team spirit that is such an integral part of sport.

Ahead of kick-off, we saw several Kuwaiti fans approach an Omani gentleman who stood next to a carton. He reached into it, and unhesitatingly gave them all scarves, emblazoned with the national coat of arms of the Sultanate’s khanjar and two crossed swords, and images of His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said, as well as Omani flags, keepsakes of their time in Doha, which would add to the richness of their memories of the Arabian Gulf Cup when they recall to others their experiences at the tournament.

As we entered the stadium, where both sets of fans had already begun occupying their seats – the Kuwaitis in blue to our left, the Omanis in red to our right, I caught up with Ibrahim Ali Yousuf Al Balushi, who had come from Muscat to watch the game.

“I have come here to see Oman play this match today, but I have also come here to spend time with my Qatari friends,” he said. “Of course, I am sure Oman will win, and I want to see Oman play Qatar in the final. When I see the Oman team play, I am hoping they make me happy. All of us are friends here, all of us share the happiness.”

Over the roars of both sets of fans, who were taking it in turns to cheer for their own team, I also spoke with Tariq Ali Al Maqbali. “I came from Sohar to watch my team at the Gulf Cup. Inshallah, I hope Oman can win the Gulf Cup, but I am also sure that the Gulf people will develop very strong relations.”

Sitting next to him was Hilal Al Maawali, who added, “Oman’s team is capable of winning the Gulf Cup, and god willing, they will win it. This means they would have won it twice consecutively. The team is training well, and they are really into it. I feel all of us Khaleeji people must be united together, regardless of whatever issues we may face. Political issues, social issues, whatever they may be, we must unite and get together, because we are the same people. We share the same language and our cultures are just the same.”

Sharing seemed to be the theme of the evening. Behind me, an Omani gentleman, a broad smile on his face, unhesitatingly gave a little Kuwaiti boy – who would have been no more than eight or nine years old – some of the water he had bought for his kids. Next to him were two Kuwaiti fans, who did not think twice before sharing their seats with Omani supporters looking for a place to sit.

They would not stay seated for long, though. Minutes before kick-off, the entire stadium rose as one to honour the national anthems of Oman and Kuwait. No second thoughts seemed to pass through the minds of those who were around us. The mutual respect for each other’s countries and values was clear for all to witness.

During the game, both sets of supporters cheered their teams on in their own separate ways.

The Omanis banged their drums and sang along to patriotic songs that were amplified through loudspeakers they’d brought into the ground, as they waved the country’s red, white and green flags. The Kuwaitis on the other hand, broke into choreographed chanting and rhythmic beating (of drums?).

It was Oman who won the game in the end – Abdulaziz Al Maqbali scored two penalties in the first half before Youssef Sulaiman made a contest of it in the second when he pulled one back for Kuwait. We were on the edge of our seats as the minutes ticked by:

Kuwait knew they had the upper hand once they’d gotten a goal back and the Omanis were living dangerously, although they did manage to see out the game.

The rivalry between the two teams lasted for exactly 90 minutes. We were seated in the mixed zone, and once the game ended, the Omanis were quick to exchange commiserative handshakes and playful banter with the Kuwaiti supporters. Outside the stadium, fans had already begun celebrating Oman’s win, once again striking up tunes on their bagpipes, as those around them danced in joy and happily waved enormous Omani flags.

Victory was important to all the eight teams that had come to Qatar to contest the Gulf Cup, but the fans placed winning only slightly above brotherhood, togetherness, and taking pleasure in the things that bind their countries together.

“I have full confidence in the players,” Qatar coach Felix Sanchez had said before the game against Yemen.

“They have the hunger to achieve positive results. There are no easy matches in these tournaments.” Qatar midfielder Akram Afif said, “It doesn’t matter how we score. We’re only thinking about winning and getting the three points.”

The next day, as we prepared to depart Doha, little did we know that there was yet another burst of brotherhood we were about to be treated to.

As we entered the elevator and prepared to check out, two officials from the Bahrain and Qatar football federations met each other, exchanging warm greetings and embraces, before talking about the prospects of each other’s teams.

Clearly the ties that bind the Arab countries together are indeed strong and run deep. Sports just gave us a chance to see this in action. – [email protected]

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