Abdulaziz Hatem heads Qatar to victory over Bahrain at Fifa Arab Cup

Hosts win 1-0 on opening game of tournament, while Tunsia beat Mauritania and Oman draw with Iraq

Abdulaziz Hatem celebrates scoring Qatar's winning goal against Bahrain on the opening day of the Fifa Arab Cup on Tuesday, November 30. Reuters

Qatar got their home Fifa Arab Cup under way with victory on Tuesday night, defeating Bahrain 1-0 at Al Bayt Stadium.

The hosts, the reigning Asian champions, began their Group A campaign following the tournament’s official opening ceremony at the same venue in Al Khor, and secured the three points thanks to a goal from Abdulaziz Hatem midway through the second half.

Felix Sanchez’s side, ranked among the favourites for the title, came into the tournament on the back of numerous friendlies against European national teams since September since they qualify automatically as hosts for next year’s World Cup. In July, they had contested the Concacaf Gold Cup, reaching the semi-finals.

Meanwhile, Bahrain were looking for another strong showing in an national tournament having won the 2019 Gulf Cup and the 2019 West Asian Football Federation (WAFF) Championship.

As expected, then, the visitors put up a sturdy resistance in their Arab Cup opener. On 19 minutes, Bahrain goalkeeper Sayed Mohammed atoned for an initial error to block well from Qatar midfielder Mohammed Waad’s rebound. Having first flapped at a cross, Sayed Mohammed recovered promptly to strongly palm away the ball to safety.

It was not until the 69th minute that Qatar took the lead. A whipped cross from 2019 Asian player of the year Akram Afif was met expertly by Hatem, who stooped to power home a header and send the crowd wild.

Qatar held out for the remainder of the match, including seven minutes of injury-time to seal a morale-boosting victory. Sanchez’s men next take on 2017 Gulf champions Oman on Friday, while Bahrain face Iraq earlier in the day. The top two sides from each of the four, four-team group progress to the quarter-finals.

At the opening ceremony on Tuesday, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, Emir of Qatar, had addressed the crowd at the stadium from his seat, wishing all the best to the national teams competing in the tournament. Sitting alongside, Gianni Infantino, the Fifa president, gave a couple of sentences in Arabic before switching to English to declare: “Let’s celebrate football and unite the world, together.”

Although in its 10th iteration — the tournament dates back to 1963 and was last played in 2012 — this year’s event is the first to be played under the Fifa banner.

Taking place almost exactly a year before the World Cup in Qatar, it is viewed as an important opportunity to test operations and facilities before the Middle East’s first global finals.

Qatar have played in the Arab Cup only twice before, in 1985 and 1998. In the latter, which they also hosted, they finished runners-up.

Tunisia got the inaugural tournament underway with a comprehensive 5-1 victory over Mauritania, in the other Group A game, at the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium.

There are 74 places between the two teams in the Fifa world rankings and it showed, although 103rd-ranked Mauritania held out for 39 minutes until Zamalek forward Seifeddine Jaziri broke the deadlock for Tunisia.

The floodgates then opened as Ajman midfielder Mohamed Firas Ben Al Arbi doubled Tunisia's lead three minutes later, before Jaziri scored his second in first-half injury time, which lasted more than 12 minutes after the referee sustained an injury.

Mauritania pulled one back in the 12th minute of added time after Cheikh Moulaye Ahmed converted from the penalty spot. But Tunisia restored their three-goal advantage six minutes after the interval when Ben Al Arbi grabbed his brace and Al Arabi forward Youssef Msakni completed the rout in injury time.

In Group B, Iraq and Oman played out a 1-1 draw at the Al Janoub Stadium. After a goalless first half, Oman took the lead 12 minutes from time when midfielder Salaah Al Yahyaei scored from the penalty spot.

That looked like it was going to be the winning goal until Iraq were also awarded a penalty deep into injury time that substitute Hasan Abdulkareem converted to earn his team a point.

Updated: November 30th 2021, 6:52 PM