Qatar beat Saudi Arabia on the field Thursday, in a resounding victory overshadowed by the significance of the meeting itself.
Surging off momentum built in the early rounds of the AFC Asian Cup, Qatar defeated the Saudis 2-0 . Almoez Ali, a 22-year-old forward, scored both goals for Qatar, holding his spot as top scorer in the tournament after a four-goal run against North Korea last weekend.
While Ali’s heroics captivated onlookers at Zayed Sports City Stadium in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, geopolitics dominated the discourse around the game. It was the countries’ first match-up since Saudi Arabia severed diplomatic relations with Qatar more than 18 months ago. Just weeks ago, Qatar officially pulled out of OPEC.
The tiny, oil- and gas-producing nation had announced last month that it would leave the cartel, digging its heels deeper into a dispute with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. Saudi Arabia broke off ties with Qatar in June 2017, alleging that it funds terrorist organizations, and the Saudis have maintained a boycott since then. Egypt, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates joined the boycott, which has unfolded against a backdrop of longstanding tensions between Qatar and surrounding states.
In addition to its role as a key player in the blockade, the U.A.E. is also playing host to the Asian Cup, which has caused inconveniences for Qatari nationals travelling to the games, including officials, journalists and just a trickle of fans, The New York Times reports. On social media, some people called the Qatar-Saudi Arabia match-up the “Blockade Derby.”
But representatives from both countries said before the match that the two sides would separate politics and soccer. “Football is a message of peace,” Qatar spokesperson Ali Hassan al-Salat told The Guardian.
Other countries locked in well-established political tensions have met in the tournament. Last week, Iran faced off against Iraq in a stadium in Dubai, in a match that ended with an anticlimactic 0-0 draw.
Qatar and Saudi Arabia will both advance to the final 16 teams. Qatar, which has maintained a perfect score in the tournament, is set to play Iraq on Tuesday.