The prestigious Gulf Cup football tournament is often considered a benchmark of success in the region by the six GCC member nations along with the other two non-GCC participants - Iraq and Yemen.
Over the 46-year journey since its inaugural edition in Bahrain in 1970, the tournament has been marked by highs and lows - from team pullouts, cancellations and postponements, to being celebrated as the most popular sporting spectacle in the region.
The 23rd Gulf Cup is scheduled to be held in Doha, Qatar from December 2017-January 2018. The GCC football federation has been making repeated attempts for the tournament to be included in the FIFA calendar.
On Tuesday, the doors for the Gulf Cup's entry into the FIFA itinerary appeared to be shut for good when Sheikh Salman al Khalifa, the president of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), categorically ruled out that possibility.
Speaking at a press conference held at the Oman Football Association headquarters, the Asian football body boss said, “I don't think the FIFA can include Gulf Cup in its already-packed calendar. There are many similar tournaments across the world.”
Getting the competition into the FIFA fold would have helped Oman, which routinely struggles to get its star player and captain Ali al Habsi released for national duty. Technically, clubs are not bound to release their players for tournaments that are not listed on the FIFA calendar.
Sheikh Salman said, “Additionally, the release of international players for national duty costs the FIFA a lot of money. We have to accept that the Gulf Cup is a regional event and it cannot be included in the FIFA calendar.”
The AFC president arrived in Muscat on Monday night after attending the final of AFC U16 Championship in Goa, India, where the AFC Extraordinary Congress was held as well. He congratulated Sheikh Salim al Wahaibi, the newlyelected OFA chairman, and his board of directors, promising full support from the continental body to develop the game in Oman.
“Oman plays an important role at the Asian level and has good teams at senior and age-group levels. We [at the AFC] will like to collaborate with the OFA as we believe that only a united Asia can take the game forward,” he said.
‘Need 40-team World Cup only after 2026’
Sheikh Salman, who is also the FIFA vice-president, threw his support behind a 40-team World Cup, a move proposed by the FIFA chief Gianni Infantino. “I heard today that there is now a proposal for a 48-team World Cup. I am not against the increase in the numbers of teams in the World Cup. “All I am saying is that any such move should be after the 2026 World Cup. Even a move to make the 2026 World Cup a 40-team event will be early,” he said.
“To have extra slots for Asia, I am sure it would be a positive.” He added, "If we can get six spots from the current four and a half, then that would be good. The half is not very clear. To have a guaranteed six will be reasonable." Asia's 'half' spot at the World Cup comes courtesy of a playoff between the fifth-best team in the final qualifying phase and the fourth-placed CONCACAF team.
‘Qatar World Cup will be a success’
The AFC chief played down concerns surrounding Qatar, which will host the 2022 World Cup. “In every World Cup, there are always some concerns, be it in terms of infrastructure or security. My feeling is that it will be one of the most successful World Cups. With the World Cup to be held in November- December, the players will be in peak shape, which will make it exciting,” he said.
‘Playing standards need to be raised’
He said the major challenge facing Asian football right now is the need to raise the playing standards. “At the 2014 World Cup, Asian teams didn't do well. We have to do more, and for that, we have to focus on the grassroots, coaching and refereeing,” he said. Australia, Iran, Japan and South Korea failed to advance to the second round in Brazil. It was also the first time since 1990 that no Asian team managed to win a game.
‘United Asia sent out a strong message’
Sheikh Salman said that the near unanimous decision of the AFC members to postpone the elections of the three Asian representatives to the FIFA Council during the AFC Extraordinary Congress in Goa sent out a strong message that 'Asia stands united'.
A total of 42 member nations voted overwhelmingly against supporting the agenda, bringing the summit to an end after just 27 minutes. Members were upset that Saoud al Mohannadi, the vice-president of the Qatar Football Association, had been barred from contesting by the FIFA just days before the vote for refusing to cooperate with a corruption investigation. "The members spoke in one voice and delivered a loud and clear message," Sheikh Salman said.
"Everyone present here and across the world witnessed that Asia is united." The AFC chief said that the suspension of Kuwait by the FIFA is an internal matter of the country and he wished that the matter is resolved soon.
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