DUBAI (Reuters) - Coach Felix Sanchez is confident his players can put the diplomatic dispute between Qatar and neighbouring Saudi Arabia aside and focus on their performance after the two countries were drawn to face one another at next year’s Asian Cup.
Relations between the countries have been troubled since Saudi Arabia and a group of regional allies, including Asian Cup hosts the United Arab Emirates, cut off travel and trade ties with Qatar last June, accusing it of supporting terrorism. Qatar denies the charges.
The political situation between the pair adds intrigue to Group E, which also features Lebanon and North Korea, but Spanish coach Sanchez believes the 2022 World Cup hosts will be focused on their on-field task.
“The players are very professional and we’re going to think only about the football,” he said.
“When we play the game against Saudi for sure there is three points and both teams will need them and we are going to treat them like any other game and thinking only about football.
“Once you are on the green, it’s only about football.”
Hosts UAE will open the tournament - which runs from January 5 to February 1 next year - when they take on Gulf rivals Bahrain after being drawn in group A with Thailand and India while defending champions Australia, who defeated South Korea in the final in 2015, take on Middle Eastern trio Syria,Palestine and Jordan in group B.
The meeting with Syria will see the two countries renew their rivalry after the Socceroos ended the war-torn nation’s remarkable run to the verge of qualification for this year’s World Cup finals.
“This is a challenge that we won’t shy away from,” said Australia’s assistant coach Ante Milicic.
“We’re proud that we’re Asian champions, it’s a very big honour for us to be the best team in Asia.
“We’re going to look to now do well away from Australia, away from home with different tests and challenges but it’s one we’re definitely looking forward to and will be well prepared for.”
Four-time champions Japan take on Uzbekistan, Oman and Turkmenistan in group F while China’s hopes of a first-ever Asian Cup title will hinge on advancing from group C, which also features South Korea, Kyrgyzstan and the Philippines.
Iran, meanwhile, meet historic rivals Iraq in group D alongside Vietnam and Yemen as they seek to claim the title for the first time since 1976.
Reporting by Michael Church, editing by Pritha Sarkar