Qatar's rivals reach Gulf Cup final despite absent fans

Gregory WALTON, Anne LEVASSEUR

Al Wakrah (Qatar) (AFP) - A tiny handful of Saudi fans were present in Qatar Thursday to see their side's hard-won 1-0 Gulf Cup semi-final victory over the hosts whose supporters dominated the cavernous Al-Janoub stadium.

Of the 42,025 fans who turned out in the mild winter conditions to see the visitors book their place in next week's final against Bahrain, no more than 25 showed any sign of backing the visitors.

"The game was very difficult. The Qatari team has good elements, Akram Afif and Moez Ali -- 1-0 was a difficult result," said a Saudi fan who gave his name as Saud, 25, an oil worker from Dharan who had the signature green Saudi colours draped over his shoulders.

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"They pressed us in the second half from the 60th minute till the end."

Saud made the journey to Doha despite his country's two-year-long effort to isolate Qatar over charges that Doha backs radical Islamists and seeks closer ties with Iran.

Along with its allies Egypt, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, Saudi has closed its airspace to Qatar Airways and banned travel to the country.

Doha vehemently denies the charges.

But the three Gulf boycott countries are currently taking part in the regional Gulf Cup tournament in Qatar after they announced their participation at the last minute.

That and the Saudi king's decision to invite the Qatari emir to a Gulf summit in Riyadh on Tuesday has led to speculation about an imminent diplomatic breakthrough.

"Away from politics, the Qatari people are respected," added Saud. "They are lovable people and we thank them."

The regional schism has seen families divided and Qatari businesses face increased costs, as well as complicating regional travel and diplomatic efforts.

At Al-Janoub, located south of the capital Doha, two infant brothers played in the stands, one wearing a traditional thobe and red keffiyeh waving a Qatari flag, and the other the Saudi colours.

- 'Happy to be here' -

"I'm happy to be here and happy for the win," said the boys' mother, a Saudi dressed head-to-toe in black and married to a Qatari and living in Doha.

"Saudi is my country," said the woman who wore white sneakers and brandished a Saudi flag.

But Qatari supporter Abdulrahman, 20, insisted it was "too hard to lose to Saudi".

Ahead of Thursday's other fixture to feature one of Qatar's Gulf adversaries, Bahrain's football association flew two plane-loads of supporters to see their semi-final clash against Iraq.

Bahraini Hassan Ajha, 41, told AFP with a smile that "all Bahraini people have family in Qatar".

"All the Gulf are coming together with the same hand."

But the education ministry worker conceded "it was a big round (trip) for coming here, taking time" for those like him not lucky enough to score a seat on one of the direct flights.

Ajha, who wore Bahrain's blood-red kit, had flown along with several hundred other countrymen via Kuwait to get around the travel ban -- a several-hour detour to cover just 140 kilometres (85 miles).

"If (relations) come good, the bus is very cheap, now taking planes is very expensive," added Ajha whose sister-in-law lives in Qatar.

The latest signs of a thaw have emerged despite Doha rejecting the boycotting countries' demands it shutter Doha-based broadcaster Al-Jazeera, downgrade ties with Iran and close a Turkish military base.

Three sections of Doha's 12,000-capacity Abdullah bin Khalifa Stadium had been set aside for the Bahraini travelling contingent, but it was the Iraqis who dominated the ground, nevertheless going on to lose 5-3 on penalties.

Bahrain fan Abdulla said he had enjoyed a "very friendly response by Qataris".

"Of course I feel safe, no problems here."

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