Al-Wakrah, Qatar – Saudi Arabia have advanced to the final of the 24th Arabian Gulf Cup, beating hosts Qatar 1-0 in front of a partisan home crowd.
Saudi forward Abdullah Alhamddan scored for the visiting side with a header in the 28th minute of the first half at the packed al-Janoub Stadium in al-Wakrah, some 20km (12 miles) from the capital, Doha.
It ended up being the only goal scored in Thursday’s match as Qatar’s Maroons showed glimpses of the flare that steered them to victory at the AFC Asian Cup in the United Arab Emirates earlier this year but were unable to convert their chances.
There was more frustration for the hosts in the second half, as a 61st-minute corner attempt by Boualem Khoukhi deflected off the goalpost, sparking loud gasps from the 42,025-strong crowd in the stadium, one of the completed venues for the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
Saudi Arabia will now face Bahrain, who earlier on Thursday qualified for Sunday’s final with a nail-biting win on penalties against three-time winners Iraq.
“We couldn’t make the best result, but Saudi Arabia is a strong team,” Mohanad al-Saad, a Qatar-born Yemeni spectator, told Al Jazeera after the match.
“It was a good game, but the luck was not with Qatar today,” the 20-year-old said.
Saudi Arabia will make its 10th appearance in the Gulf Cup final, hoping to lift the trophy for a fourth time at the biennial regional football tournament.
‘Degree of goodwill’
Saudi Arabia, along with the UAE and Bahrain, came to Qatar after reversing their decision to boycott this year’s tournament over a two-year-old diplomatic dispute that has seen the trio blockade the host nation.
Ammar Mohammed, a 32-year-old Qatari supporter, said having all the Gulf nations participating in the event brought “added value to Qatar”.
“I’m very happy to see all the teams playing together,” he told Al Jazeera before the highly anticipated match.
“We are also very close to the big event, like the World Cup that is coming soon, and this month we are hosting the FIFA Club World Cup, so it is good for testing these venues, and bring more people to test as much as we can,” he added.
Despite restrictions on the airspace, the Saudi squad reportedly took a direct flight from Riyadh to Doha to attend the Gulf Cup, according to aviation analyst Alex Macheras.
Christopher Davidson, a UK-based expert on the Middle East, told Al Jazeera the Gulf Cup “has provided a convenient opportunity for Saudi Arabia and Qatar to signal some degree of goodwill to each other”.
Next week, following the completion of the tournament, Saudi Arabia will host an annual summit of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) bloc, to which Qatar’s emir has been invited.
“I think backchannel talks in recent months and senior visits to Riyadh by Qatar’s foreign minister have opened an opportunity for a rapprochement,” Andreas Krieg, assistant professor at King’s College London, told Al Jazeera.
“Much depends now on whether the Saudis will lift the blockade before December 10 in order for the Qatari emir to attend the Riyadh Summit,” he added.
In a further sign of a possible thaw between the blockading countries and Qatar, Bahrain’s football association earlier on Thursday directly flew in two planeloads of Bahraini football fans to the Qatari capital for their team’s semifinal match.
“This a good move,” Oumar Fofana, a 42-year-old football fan from Guinea, told Al Jazeera. “I hope it will be a good step to solve the crisis and to let people move freely within the region.”
In a busy month of football for the Gulf state, Qatar will welcome the best clubs from each continent, including Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal FC, at the FIFA Club World Cup next week.