The World Cup may still be very fresh in the memory but for football fans in the GCC there is another football tournament to be played. The 25th Arabian Gulf Cup in Iraq kicks off on Friday with eight teams from the region vying for the title.
The tournament will be played at two venues: Basra International Stadium and Al-Minaa Olympic Stadium. The action starts with the host nation’s clash against Oman on Jan. 6 and ends with the final on Jan. 19.
Here are eight talking points, one for each competing nation, ahead of the big kickoff.
Saad Al-Shehri and young Saudi Arabia stars can work their magic again
With the Saudi Professional League pausing for two months so that the Green Falcons could prepare for the World Cup — and sensationally beat champions Argentina — it was always unlikely that there would be another break for clubs to release their star players so soon after.
This may make it less likely that there will be a first title win since 2004 especially as other teams have named experienced squads, but it will give young and fringe players the chance to shine. Turki Al-Ammar is one of the few to have been capped at senior level, and the 2018 Young Asian Footballer of the Year starred as the U-23s won the Asian Championships, and has the chance to do so once more.
With the same coach, Saad Al-Shehri, in place over the coming weeks and looking to cement a growing reputation, Saudi Arabia will be able to get the tests they need against Yemen, Oman and hosts Iraq.
Iraq want stability on and off the pitch
Last year was a disappointment for Iraq as they struggled in the final round of World Cup qualification, and there have been a string of coaches who have come and gone.
Now they have a chance to start 2023 in style both on and off the pitch.
The last and only time the country hosted the Gulf Cup was 1979 and their most recent tournament win came nine years later. Success off the pitch is as important as success on it but both will give football a boost in the country. With Basra staging the games, and new Spanish coach Jesus Casas calling up players with talent and plenty of experience, expectations are high.
The likes of Hussein Ali, Dhurgam Ismail, Amjad Attwad and Gothenburg midfielder Amir Al-Ammari have what it takes to lead Iraq to the latter stages and deliver some much-needed good news for fans.
Oman can show they are among region’s top dogs
After Saudi Arabia, Oman were the best performing Arab team in the final stage of the road to Qatar, finishing just a point behind Australia, a team that narrowly lost to winners Argentina in the second round of Qatar 2022.
Had The Reds been in the other group last time then they might have made it all the way. Now they are in Group A, Branko Ivankovic’s men are one of the favorites and not least since they won the tournament before last.
Like his counterpart in Iraq, the wily Croatian coach has named a strong and experienced squad and there is no better time to show that the results in the World Cup qualifiers were no fluke.
Energetic Yemen searching for first-ever win
The Eagles are preparing for a 10th appearance at the Gulf Cup and are searching for a first-ever win. It will not be easy for a team that has not played a game since the first half of 2022.
Preparations are also difficult in a country that has been devastated by war for years. A training camp in Saudi Arabia has helped and there has also been time spent in Egypt.
Coach Miroslav Soukup has spent years in the region and is now in his second spell in charge. He has gone for youth with half the squad aged 25 or under and this should be a great experience, and if they could get a win, so much the better.
Qatar need to start new era on a high
Everyone knows that the World Cup was a disaster for the host nation with three defeats from three. There was a feeling that coach Felix Sanchez had kept faith too long with the team that won the 2019 Asian Cup and there was an expectation that the Spaniard would not be kept on when his contract expired on the last day of 2022, and so it was.
The pressure at the World Cup was all too much but now, temporarily at least, it is the responsibility of Portuguese tactician Bruno Pinheiro, who is without the likes of stalwarts Hassan Al-Haydos, Akram Afif, Almoez Ali and several others. It leaves opportunities for new blood to restore pride to Qatari football.
UAE starts road to 2026
The UAE had to sit and watch the World Cup in Qatar with all the surprises and shocks in the knowledge that they could have been there as they narrowly lost a playoff against Australia. While they could have been there, “should” is a different matter as, in truth, UAE were poor throughout the qualification campaign.
Now that coach Rodolfo Arruabarrena has had more time with the team, there needs to be a long-term vision, with more than eight Asian teams qualifying for the 2026 World Cup.
The likes of Ali Mabkhout and Omar Abdulrahman, the stars of the so-called golden generation from the previous decade, are out but there is still ample talent in the squad. The group looks competitive but winnable and with Qatar, Saudi Arabia and even Oman eclipsing the UAE in recent years, there is some pressure to succeed in Basra, but a first World Cup appearance since 1990 remains the main prize.
Kuwait have to bounce back from poor 2022
Kuwait have won 10 out of 24 Gulf Cups but in recent years this former powerhouse of football in Asia — the whole continent and not just the west — have fallen behind the teams they used to beat routinely. World Cup qualification was an expected failure but not making the 2023 Asian Cup was really disappointing, especially losing at home to a young Indonesian team.
That led to Rui Bento taking the reins, a third Portuguese coach in the group. There is no more Bader Al-Mutawa — the 37-year-old talisman is the most-capped international player in history — and the Blues need to move on from that era but are still looking for an identity.
Bento has gone for youth and there is a sense that this is the beginning of a new journey for Kuwait.
Bahrain looking to defend title
Bahrain may not have the glittering history of Kuwait but arrive in Iraq as defending champions. The win over Saudi Arabia in 2019 will never be forgotten and it should also be pointed out that the team reached the last 16 of the Asian Cup in the same year when they were narrowly defeated by South Korea. After a disappointing period, things were looking up.
Then came COVID-19 and momentum was halted. Coach Helio Sousa has been in place for almost four years and, despite a disappointing World Cup qualification campaign, the team is settled, full of experience and more inventive on the ball than many of their neighbors. After showing that they can upset bigger nations previously at this tournament, Bahrain cannot be counted out.
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