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Saudi, UAE football teams denied neutral venues for Qatar clashes

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Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal have been placed with Qatar’s Al Rayyan in Group D of the AFC Champions League, meaning they will play home-and-away fixtures despite the kingdom’s travel ban on its Gulf neighbour © AFP/File / Ali AL-ARIFI

Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Jan 28 – Saudi and UAE football authorities said on Sunday their teams will play Asian Champions League away matches in Qatar despite a travel ban they have imposed on their Gulf neighbour.

The decisions by the Saudi Arabian and United Arab Emirates football federations came after the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) decided overnight in Kuala Lumpur that their teams were required to play in Qatar and also host Qatari teams.

Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt in June imposed a total air, land and sea blockade on Qatar after accusing it of backing extremist groups. Qatar has categorically denied the charges.

The four nations had also imposed a travel ban on Qatari citizens and barred their nationals from travelling to Qatar, which will host the 2022 World Cup finals.

The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) ruled all matches would be played on a home-and-away basis as planned, after Saudi Arabia had called for fixtures against Qatari teams to be shifted to a neutral country.

AFC said the decision to maintain the home-and-away format was made after an independent safety and security assessment was completed.

Based on the AFC decision, “the Saudi Federation will facilitate the participation of Saudi clubs in the competition,” said a statement by the Saudi federation on Sunday.

It however expressed “strong reservation” at the way the AFC decision was made, saying it was not neutral and had been influenced by head of the competitions committee who is from Qatar.

The UAE Football Federation issued a similar statement in which it said its clubs will play in Qatar but also expressed reservation at the way the AFC decision was adopted.

Both Saudi and UAE federations said they will coordinate with AFC to ensure the safety of their teams when they play in Qatar.

Saudi authorities previously insisted that their clubs would only play against Qatari sides on neutral territory amid reports they may boycott the tournament.

With the AFC ruling that “clubs from Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates should be played on a home and away basis in 2018 as per the AFC Regulations”, Saudi club football teams are due to travel to Qatar for away matches beginning next month.

AFC Secretary General Windsor John told AFP that Saudi Arabia has not lifted the travel ban imposed on its nationals against going to Qatar.

Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal have been placed with Qatar’s Al Rayyan in Group D of the AFC Champions League beginning February 12.

Qatar’s Al Sadd are in Group C along with the UAE’s Al Wasl, while in Group B Qatar’s Al Duhail are pitted against the UAE’s Al Wahda.

The AFC Asian Champions League is the top continental competition for football clubs in Asia.

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