Qatar won its first major soccer title after beating Japan 3-1 to take home the Asian Cup in a victory surrounded by controversy and accusations of fielding ineligible players.
The oil-rich emirate, which will host the World Cup in three years, lifted the region’s biggest tournament trophy Friday just hours after they were cleared by the Asian Football Confederation to play in the final despite being accused by the United Arab Emirates of fielding two ineligible players in the semi-finals earlier this week.
The UAE, which lost to Qatar 4-0 in a politically-charged semifinal on Tuesday, questioned if two members of the Qatari team – 22-year-old Almoez Ali, a Sudan-born striker, and 21-year-old Bassam al-Rawi, a defender who is the son of a former Iraq international – meet FIFA’s nationality requirements.
Both were born outside Qatar but would be eligible if either had a parent or grandparent born in the emirate.
According to documents that have been published on websites in the UAE, the mothers of the two soccer players were not born in Qatar, as has been claimed by the Qatari federation, the Guardian reported.
Both Ali and Al-Rawi are graduates of the state-of-the-art Aspire training academy in Doha, which has developed young talents. Many were born outside Qatar, which is a nation of about 330,000 citizens.
Fewer than three hours before the final, the confederation cleared Qatar from playing in the final, publishing the decision of its disciplinary panel without giving reasons.
“The Asian Football Confederation Disciplinary and Ethics Committee on Friday dismissed the protest lodged by the United Arab Emirates Football Association over the eligibility of two Qatar players,” it said.
Had the AFC's disciplinary panel sided with the Asian Cup host nation, the sanction would have been to overturn Qatar's 4-0 win as a 3-0 loss by forfeit and disqualification from the final.
The UAE soccer federation can pursue appeals, potentially to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. However, that process in Switzerland would likely take several months to resolve.
Since winning World Cup hosting rights in December 2010, Qatar has tried to find players to build a competitive team. Qatar never qualified for a World Cup and its FIFA ranking has fluctuated between No. 78 and No. 112 in the last decade.
Qatar has been the standout story of an Asian Cup, which has played against the backdrop of regional tension. Saudi Arabia and the UAE led a diplomatic and logistic boycott of the emirate 18 months ago.
At the same time, FIFA has been studying whether to expand the 2022 World Cup to 48 teams. That plan would require Qatar to agree to share hosting with Middle East neighbors because its eight stadiums and other infrastructure could not cope with the extra games and teams.
FIFA President Gianni Infantino, who attended the final Friday, has pushed for the 48-team idea as a way of advancing peace in the region. A decision could be made by the FIFA Council at a March 14-15 meeting in Miami.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.