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Article: AFC Gulf Cup of Nations
AFC Gulf Cup of Nations 1970-2014

The Middle East is not considered a footballing hub yet there is a hugely successful tournament held biannually which is serving to establish Central Asia as a new home for the beautiful game. The Gulf Cup of Nations, which has seen the best of Middle Eastern football compete against each other on twenty-one occasions since its inauguration in 1970, was the brainchild of His Royal Highness Prince Khalid al-Faisal, who conceived the idea during the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City.

Bahrain, Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Yemen competed in the most recent edition. Kuwait have been the most successful nation, despite having not qualified for the World Cup again since their debut appearance in 1982; they have won the tournament on ten occasions, led by diminutive star striker Bashar Abdullah. His seventy-five international goals fired his country to Gulf Cup success in 1986, 1990, 1996 and 1998 and saw them rise to a record world ranking of twenty-four, in December 1998.

The Gulf Cup has been an undoubted success for Asian football and its stock continues to rise through the emergence of, and through its involvement with, television network Al-Jazeera. The Doha-based broadcaster shot to prominence in 2001 for its work on the war in Afghanistan; it was the only channel to cover the war live from its Afghan office. Al-Jazeera received full broadcasting rights to the Cup in 2009 – to the dismay of many supporters who had previously been able to watch their nation compete at no cost, but to the great benefit of the competition, which now has a sizeable benefactor streaming in money – for 23.5 million US Dollars.

This level of endorsement from a commercial superpower yields positive signs for the future of the Gulf Cup, which, for all its success, still lacks a crucial tag to place it alongside other continental tournaments: FIFA validation. The AFC Gulf Cup of Nations is, forty-four years after its induction, an unofficial tournament. The presence of both much-maligned FIFA president Sepp Blatter and UEFA president Michel Platini at the 2009 tournament has led to suggestions that the ‘official’ status may not be far away.

Fears over a lack of progress on that front have recently been quashed; the minutes from the FIFA executive meeting in Zurich in October 2013 reveal that a petition has been put forward by each of the football associations involved in the Gulf Cup for it to be added to the international football calendar. This would signify a huge boost to the prestige and viability of the Gulf Cup, which would see itself awarded a dedicated slot in the calendar; the concern that the tournament could be seen as an inferior hindrance to preparation for World Cup qualifiers, due to awkward scheduling, would be dispelled.

All signs suggest an international football tournament that continues to flourish; this bodes well for the future of international competition in the Asian Gulf, especially with the 2022 World Cup in Qatar on the horizon. The prospect of this tournament has been met with considerable cynicism and criticism, but the seventeenth Gulf Cup – held in Qatar in 2004 – should alleviate some concern. It was an undoubted success story, with impressive organisation and advertising resulting in the majority of stadiums being full for every game. That the hosts won the tournament also provided much needed impetus for Qatari football.

Cynics of football in the Asian Gulf would argue that the area is devoid of world-class footballing talent; a number of current players are threatening to challenge this perception. Iraqi footballer Humam Tariq is only eighteen years of age but his potential has seen him make his national debut at just sixteen before earning a dream move to Al-Ahli of Dubai; this was earned by impressive goalscoring form – twenty-one goals in forty-six appearances – in the colours of Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya of Iraq. Before opting to remain in his home continent with Al-Ahli, Tariq was subject to interest from major European clubs Malmo FF and Besiktas JK.

Qatari winger Khalfan Ibrahim is also evidence that the Asian Gulf is a hotbed for footballing talent. Nicknamed “the Maradona of Qatar” and “Khalfaninho”, Ibrahim has netted on sixty occasions in 156 appearances for his club Al-Sadd, leading to him also being linked with Besiktas. He has represented Qatar fifty-four times and scored seventeen times: the most high profile of those goals coming against Australia and South Korea in World Cup qualifying.

The final name to mention is this regard is Omar Abdulrahman. The midfielder from the United Arab Emirates has proved a talisman for Al-Ain in his 7 seasons there and threatened to burst onto the European scene when English Premier League titans Manchester City took him on a two-week trial. Work permit issues unfortunately meant that Abdulrahman could not take the up the four-year contract that was offered to him by the 2012 and 2014 champions, but his nomination for the Best Emirati Player of the Year 2014 suggests that his hopes of a contract in Europe are not yet extinguished.

The future is bright for the AFC Gulf Cup of Nations. Media tycoon MP & Silva has recently purchased the rights to the 2014 cup, held in Saudi Arabia. The beacon that is the World Cup in Qatar in 2022 continues to provide the impetus and inspiration for this tournament to thrive. After forty-four years, Prince Khalid al-Faisal’s brainchild is a major and successful international tournament linking up the Asian Gulf with the rest of the footballing world.

Written by Alex Beck

Gulf Cup logo
Yemen v Saudi Arabia, Gulf Cup in Bahrain