ABU DHABI: Performers are seen during the opening ceremony of the 2019 AFC Asian Cup at the Zayed sports city stadium yesterday. — AFP

DOHA: Qatar's 23-man football squad for the Asian Cup left Doha yesterday, heading circuitously to the United Arab Emirates on a sports quest which could ultimately be overshadowed by politics. The tiny gas-rich state's participation in Asia's biggest football tournament comes at a highly sensitive time in Gulf relations, as host UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain have imposed a political and economic boycott on Doha since June 2017.

Officials and players have vowed to put politics to one side during the almost month-long tournament. "In the end this is football," Qatar's goalkeeper Saad Al-Sheeb told AFP. "We just control ourselves and play football," he said. But the tournament - which pitches Qatar against Saudi in Abu Dhabi on Jan 17 - could prove to be a flashpoint.

Even the Qatari team's journey is a reminder of the politics involved - the squad has to fly via Kuwait, because of a ban on direct flights imposed against Doha by the UAE, Saudi and Bahrain. The team's route is symbolic as Kuwait has led regional mediation over the crisis. Abu Dhabi, Riyadh and Manama accuse Doha - which is the 2022 World Cup host - of supporting terrorism and seeking closer relations with Iran. Qatar denies this and claims its regional rivals are seeking regime change in Doha. It is the first time Qatar's team has travelled to the UAE since the diplomatic crisis began.

Leading Qatari official and tournament organizer, Saoud Al-Mohannadi, was allegedly barred from entering the UAE on his first attempt, though officials in Abu Dhabi disputed this. A statement by the Asian Football Confederation on Thursday said it was "aware of reports that [Mohannadi]… was unable to travel to the United Arab Emirates from Muscat in Oman". The AFC had said it was "investigating the situation".

A Qatari official told Reuters that Mohannadi was on Thursday stopped from boarding an Oman Air flight to Abu Dhabi from Muscat. He was told by the airline that his name was not on a list held at Abu Dhabi airport, another source said. An AFC spokesman said Mohannadi had arrived in Abu Dhabi on Friday. It was not immediately clear which route he had taken.

However, Aref Hamad Al-Awani, the Emirati Local Organizing Committee tournament director denied to AFP that anyone had been stopped from entering the country. "The news is not true," he said. "Saoud (Al-Mohannadi) arrived today to Abu Dhabi and preparing himself for his meetings. We did not see any evidence that Al-Mohannadi was denied entry. And the proof (is) that he is here today. This issue has political purposes, and we try to keep sports away from politics."

Five Qatar-based journalists also claim they were not allowed into the UAE to cover the tournament, after allegedly being kept waiting at Dubai airport for 13 hours before returning to Doha. It all comes at a time when FIFA president Gianni Infantino is pressing for the Qatar World Cup to be increased from 32 to 48 teams, a move which would likely mean Doha having to share tournament games with neighboring countries. Qatar has said it will only decide on any expansion of the World Cup after seeing a FIFA feasibility study expected by March.- Agencies