DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – In a match with political overtones, Iran plays Qatar in a World Cup qualifier Tuesday that both nations need to win to maintain hope of reaching next year's tournament in Brazil.
The countries have been at odds, most recently over Syria. It is unlikely that Qatar — where political dissent is prohibited — will allow protests to spill into the stadium.
"As much as people try to say sport is neutral, you can never separate sports and politics," said Mustafa Alani, an analyst at the Gulf Research Center in Geneva. "Athletes are representing a country. This is, by nature, a political act. The history of sports is full of political backstories: U.S. vs. the Soviet Union, Israel being shunned by many Muslim countries and, to add to the list, Iran and its rivals in the Gulf."
Amir Hosein Hoseini, a spokesman for Iran's soccer federation, called the match with Qatar "very sensitive" and complained that Iranian reporters had not yet been issued visas.
It isn't the first time politics has overshadowed a match between Iran, which has overwhelming Shiite population, and Persian Gulf nations ruled by Sunnis. The United Arab Emirates canceled an exhibition against Iran last year because of to a territorial dispute. FIFA, wary of fan violence, appointed a security expert to monitor a 2011 World Cup qualifier between Iran and Bahrain.
Iran coach Carlos Queiroz, former coach of Major League Soccer's MetroStars and former assistant to Alex Ferguson at Manchester United, said politics won't be a factor. Iran hasn't played in the World Cup since 2006.
"It's a crucial, crucial match for both teams. We are running now out of time," Queiroz told The Associated Press. "As you know, everybody can be in and everybody can be out. Even Lebanon still has a chance so these final three games are crucial for all the teams."
Uzbekistan (3-1-2) leads Asia Group A with 11 points, one ahead of South Korea (3-1-1) and four in front of Iran (2-2-1) and Qatar (2-3-1). Lebanon (1-4-1) is last. The top two nations advance to the 32-team field in Brazil next year, and the third-place team goes to playoffs for another berth.
Iran, ranked 57th, is favored against No. 101 Qatar, which will host soccer's top event in 2022. Iran has scored just two goals in its last five qualifiers.
"Probably will be one of the most important games of my career," said Iran captain Javad Nekounam, who played for Spain's Osasuna from 2006-12. "We will play with our heart and soul and give it 100 percent as we have done previously. We know our people, our nation wants our team to be in the World Cup. This gives us double motivation."
Queiroz, a former Portugal and Real Madrid manager, has "no doubt" the team will reach the World Cup. But he acknowledged it faces hurdles, including the loss to injury of Hadi Aghili, Mahdi Rahmati, Ali Karimi and star midfielder Ashkan Dejagah. Osasuna's Masoud Shojaei had yet to arrive last weekend.
"In Asia, there are a lot of circumstances sometimes outside the game that can influence the performance of the players like traveling, the distances, the weather," Queiroz said. "We can only bring players 48 hours before a crucial game for the World Cup. Qatar has its team in camp and they are preparing all the players. It is unfair or an unbalanced situation."
Qatar has injury troubles of its own, announcing Monday that star striker Sebastian Soria won't be available.
"We respect the Iranian team knowing they are better ranked than us," Qatar coach Fahad Than said. "We will miss Sebastian Soria. However, we have quality replacements. Our team is made of players who are ready to work for each other."
Associated Press writer Nasser Karimi in Tehran contributed to this report.