What next for Gulf Cup of Nations?
The build-up to the tournament has been nothing short of shambolic. Last week, Kuwait pulled out of hosting the 2015 edition only two months before its scheduled start following a summer of controversy and U-turns.
Initially, the tournament was set to be held in Baghdad in 2016, before Iraq pulled out over security reasons. Could this latest fiasco be a fatal blow to a tournament that in recent years has become much loved and maligned?
The competition does not hold the same affection in the hearts of fans as it did in the 1970s and ’80s. During those early days, the tournament provided the only competitive action for most Gulf countries.
Iraq and Kuwait may have been busy conquering Middle East football, but for Oman, Bahrain, UAE, Qatar and even Saudi Arabia the Gulf Cup remained a highlight of the international calendar.
The UAE, for example, did not take part in an Asian Cup qualifier until 1979. Their first World Cup qualifier was still six years away. The Gulf Cup wins of 2007 and 2013 rank as the country’s outstanding football achievements behind qualifying for the 1990 World Cup.
Things are changing though. It seems enthusiasm for the Gulf Cup is waning.
It is no surprise. The member nations have bigger fish to fry now.
Qualification for the World Cup and Asian Cup are far more lucrative and incentivised. The national teams in Gulf would probably admit in private that they could do without the distraction of a weeks-long competition that remains unsanctioned by Fifa.
Perhaps the biggest disruptions are suffered by the region’s domestic leagues. One-month gaps in league fixtures, as has happened to the Arabian Gulf League during the last two Gulf Cups, no longer makes commercial or footballing sense.
The 2014 Gulf Cup in Saudi Arabia was also dogged by a television broadcasting controversy before a ball had been kicked.
“This is a tournament for all football fans and media in the Gulf,” Yousef Al Serkal, president of the Football Association, said at the time. “Why should one television station in one country broadcast and another can’t because the cost is prohibitive?” Attendances in Saudi Arabia, save for a handful of matches involving the host nation, were abysmal.
Al Serkal also called for the establishment of a permanent Gulf Cup organising committee, which still does not exist to this day: all decisions for each tournament are taken by the host nation. With the Asian Champions League also flourishing, it is not difficult to see how clubs and players might prioritise this modern, high-exposure competition over the more parochial Gulf Cup.
No doubt traditionalists will pine for the days the beloved competition fostered unity in a developing region. But with this now established across so many other fields competitions, we could be nearing the end of the Gulf Cup.
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