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Qatari soccer team plays in UAE amid Gulf diplomatic rift

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By JOHN DUERDEN
Associated Press

The eight-month long boycott of Qatar by regional neighbors has been broken by a soccer team.

Al Gharafa of Qatar was opening its Asian Champions League campaign on Monday in Abu Dhabi against Al Jazira, the champions of the United Arab Emirates.

Rather than taking a short direct flight from Doha to Abu Dhabi, Al Gharafa was forced to go via Oman on Sunday due to the diplomatic dispute in the Gulf.

Since June, the UAE along with Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt have severed all ties - including travel - with Qatar after accusing the country of supporting terrorism.

Al Gharafa manager Bulent Uygun wanted to keep his team focused on soccer rather than thinking about the political turmoil.

"We will be playing a strong Al Jazira team on their home ground but for us it is like any other match," Ugyen said. "We are not looking at it as though it is something out of the ordinary."

The group stage of Asia's leading club competition will feature 12 meetings between teams from Qatar and those from UAE and Saudi Arabia.

UAE requests to play those games in a third country were rejected by the Asian Football Confederation, which organizes the tournament featuring 32 teams split into eight groups of four.

"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," the AFC said in a recent statement.

The soccer federations of the UAE and Saudi Arabia accepted the decision though expressed reservations about how it had been made.

There is still no solution, however, to the issues between Saudi Arabia and Iran since the two countries cut diplomatic ties in 2016. Tractor Sazi of Iran has to host Al-Ahli of Jeddah in Oman.

According to reports in Iran, the president of the country's federation has asked FIFA president Gianni Infantino to intervene and help settle the dispute.

On the field, teams from the West Asia division will be seeking to win the trophy for only the second time since 2005. The competition is divided into two geographic zones until the final for travel and financial reasons.

The two losing finalists from 2016 and 2017 meet in the opening round in Saudi Arabia as Al-Hilal hosts Al-Ain of the UAE. 

In the east, big-spending Tianjin Quanjian is making a first appearance in the eastern half of the draw and kicks off with a home tie against Kitchee of Hong Kong. The Chinese Super League team features Alexandre Pato of Brazil and Belgian international Axel Witsel. It is led by former Fiorentina and Basel manager Paulo Sousa.

"Quanjian's Champions League appearance is a huge boost for Chinese football clubs," Sousa said, "and we are confident that we can defeat every opponent in the following games."

Shanghai SIPG, with over $100 million of Brazilian talent in Hulk and Oscar, travels to Japanese champion Kawasaki Frontale. 

Jeonbuk Motors returns to the tournament it won in 2016 after being barred from defending its title the following year. The South Korean club was punished after a scout was found guilty of bribing referees in the 2013 K-League season.

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