(CNN)Forget “El Clasico.” Welcome to ‘El Gasico.”
While the upcoming occasion is ostensibly about football, the build up to the contest — also dubbed the “blockade derby” — has been surrounded by analysis of the politics and diplomatic strife in the region.
The semifinal clash represents the first time the two have come face to face on the football field since the UAE joined Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt in breaking off relations with Qatar in June 2017.
The boycott, the worst diplomatic crisis to hit the Gulf Arab states in decades, followed allegations that Qatar was supporting terrorism and destabilizing the region.
Qatar rejected the accusations, labeling them “unjustified” and “baseless.”
Much of the criticism aimed at Qatar comes from its alleged support of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamic group considered a terrorist organization by Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Qatari citizens were given 14 days to leave Saudi Arabi, Bahrain and the UAE, while all three countries banned their own citizens from entering Qatar.
Yemen, Mauritius, Mauritania, the Maldives and Libya’s eastern-based government also joined the boycott.
The air and land blockade imposed on Qatar also meant that the national team had to take a longer route to reach the UAE, flying via Kuwait instead.
According to UAE law, sympathizing politically with Qatar is a crime punishable by a jail term of three to 15 years in prison and a fine of no less than AED 500,000 (USD 136,000).
For the UAE, this contest is crucial. Defeat to Qatar on home soil would be embarrassing and could enable what had been previously unthinkable — a Qatari national team winning its first ever Asian Cup on UAE soil.
The home nation is pulling out all the stops to prevent that possibility.
In order to bolster the crowd and further home advantage, the UAE Sports Council has bought all unsold tickets, giving them away for free to UAE residents.
The UAE Ministry of Education is also encouraging students to attend and watch the game, cutting the school day by two hours, while the public sector has been given time off to watch the contest and cheer the team onto victory.
But while the off-field matters dominate the lead-up to the contest, Qatar, the host nation for the 2022 World Cup, has preferred to do its talking on the field.
Qatar’s run to the semifinals of the competition, which included victory over the much-fancied South Korea in the previous round, has been remarkable.
Ranked 93 in the world, Qatar has won all five of its games without conceding a goal and boasts the tournament’s top scorer in Almoez Ali.
It is quite the achievement given it has had little to no support from the stands given the difficulties Qataris have in obtaining permission to enter the UAE.
“The players are aware that there’s pressure but they’re dealing with it very well,” Qatar coach Felix Sanchez told reporters ahead of the game. “We are more confident under pressure.”
For the UAE, which will be backed by around 43,000 fans in Abu Dhabi Tuesday, the stakes could scarcely be higher.
Ranked 14 places above its opponent in the world rankings, the UAE defeated Australia in the quarterfinal and reached the final last time it hosted the tournament in 1996.
But UAE coach Alberto Zaccheroni, who led Japan to a record fourth Asian Cup title in 2011, says his side are facing a formidable challenge.
“They are an outstanding side who haven’t conceded a goal yet,” the Italian told reporters ahead of the game.
“Their results, even before the Asian Cup, were excellent. They are solid in all departments but they have some dangerous individuals too.
“They’ve been together for many years and that stability is a source of great strength for them.”
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