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Qatar’s Asian Cup 2019 winners – a victory for plucky underdogs, or for naturalisation?

Qatar’s Asian Cup 2019 winners – a victory for plucky underdogs, or for naturalisation?

The 2019 Asian Cup certainly caught the attention of a European football public that loves an underdog story. We saw relatively early exits from established big guns such as Australia and South Korea, unexpected progress from nations as diverse as Vietnam and Kyrgyzstan and, of course, a new name on the trophy in the form of Qatar.

The Maroons’ success, after a 3-1 final victory against the more illustrious Japan, was a massive surprise – especially given that they had not won a single Asian Cup match on foreign soil since 1984 (and were comfortably beaten by Scotland in a friendly just a few years ago). Young Qatar forward Almoez Ali was the breakout star of the tournament, bagging 9 goals (including one in the final). 

Beneath this fairy-tale story, however, an intriguing sub-plot was brewing. Host nation the United Arab Emirates, two hours after having been trounced 4-0 by their neighbours and geo-political rivals in an ill-tempered semi final, promptly lodged a formal protest to the Asian Football Confederation regarding the eligibility of two Qatar players.

UAE’s position was that neither Ali (who was born in Sudan) nor his team mate Bassam Al Rawi (born in Iraq) had lived in Qatar continuously for a period of five years since the age of 18, and therefore neither met the eligibility criteria to switch international allegiance to Qatar under Article 7(d) of the FIFA Statutes’ Governing Regulations.

Both Ali and Al Rawi claim their mothers were born in Qatar – if true, this would make them eligible under Article 7(b) of the Governing Regulations (the “parent” rule), with no requirement to satisfy the 7(d) residency criteria. However, UAE claimed they had documents proving Al Rawi’s mother was born in Baghdad, and would submit these to the AFC.

In a dramatic denouement to the affair, the AFC dismissed UAE’s protest on the day of the final, just a few hours prior to the match against Japan where Ali cemented his place in Qatari football folklore.

So, was this reaction nothing more than sour grapes from the UAE? Qatar’s national team has long had a reputation for attempting to “naturalise” its way to respectability, with Latin American players being given fast track Qatari citizenship to bolster the fortunes of the team. However, this practice has been somewhat curtailed in the more recent past, with the majority of players in the current squad having been born in Qatar.

No reasoning has been given for the decision, with the news announced by way of a single sentence press release, and it is unlikely that any further information will be provided to the wider public – AFC’s Disciplinary and Ethics Committee publishes only minimal information regarding its decisions.  It is therefore not possible to know whether the Qatari players satisfied the residency criteria, the parent criteria, or both.

Whilst confidentiality is a common theme in sports judicial processes, it can promote a feeling of dissatisfaction and secrecy amongst ordinary fans – particularly here, where the combination of regional intrigue and Qatar’s history of questionable nationalisation practices aggravated an already high stakes situation.

Some sporting judicial bodies publish reasons on a discretionary basis for those decisions where there is an element of public interest in doing so, and if the AFC followed that approach perhaps it would give the public greater confidence that due process had been followed - not least those home UAE supporters who had to watch their rivals lift the trophy in their back yard!

By Roddy Cairns

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