Hamad al-Mansouri was sitting at a shisha cafe in Beirut watching his national Qatari football team take on South Korea in the quarter-finals of the AFC Asian Cup on TV.
The tournament has been played against the backdrop of a regional dispute, which saw Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt cut political, diplomatic and economic ties with Qatar and impose a land, air and sea blockade on the Gulf nation in June 2017.
And as Qatar gets ready to face the hosts and former finalists in front of a partisan home crowd in Abu Dhabi at 6pm local time (14:00 GMT) on Tuesday for a spot in the final, there is both anger and frustration among Qatari fans.
“This is hurting us emotionally,” Mansouri told Al Jazeera. “But even if they actually allowed us to go, I wouldn’t go to the UAE because we are just so scared of being in that place. It’s so dangerous for us.”
Showing sympathy for Qatar is punishable in the UAE, with a jail term of up to 15 years.
Dubbed the Blockade Derby, the match is the first meeting between the two regional rivals since the start of the Gulf crisis.
Free tickets were distributed among “loyal” Emirati fans on Sunday by the Abu Dhabi Sports Council, which bought all the remaining ones for Tuesday’s semi-final.
Meanwhile, non-Emiratis attempting to avail the free entry were turned away, UAE news outlet, The National reported.
“The Emirati authorities are willing to do anything to get a win of any kind over Qatar,” said Mansouri.
After barring Qatari fans from supporting their team at every stage of this tournament, UAE now buys up all tickets to Qatar’s next match to prevent Omani and international fans from cheering the team.
— طارق (@TareqBinAli_) January 25, 2019
Are @FIFAcom & @afcasiancup organizers aware that the #UAE has been preventing #Qatar supporters from entering the stadia to support there national team & have now monopolized on the semifinal tickets buy purchasing them all exclusively for Emirati supporters?#AsianCup https://t.co/lRxw2PaJls
— Jamal Elshayyal جمال (@JamalsNews) January 26, 2019
Analysts criticised the Emirati officials for “politicising Asian football’s flagship tournament”.
“The absence of fans from Qatar appears to mark a failure by the AFC to obtain sufficient assurance from the hosts that representatives from all participating nations will receive fair and equal treatment,” said Kristian Ulrichsen, author of The United Arab Emirates: Power, Politics and Policy-Making.
Ali al-Salat, Qatar Football Association’s media officer, said the national side was aware that it will have to compete without its fans in the stadium, adding that friendlies against Switzerland and Iceland helped the team prepare.
“They are athletes, they are going to play football,” Salat said in a previous interview.” [There’s] no need to mix political issues with sports.”
But, political tensions marred Qatar and UAE’s last football encounter at the under-19 AFC Asian Cup in Indonesia in October, when the Emirati captain shrugged off a customary handshake with his Qatari counterpart at the start of the match.
“I think it’s sadly inevitable that regional politics will tinge the match, though probably mostly in the media, and hopefully not down to the level of the individual players, who I am sure are professional both on and off the pitch,” said Christopher Davidson, a UK-based expert on the Middle East.
The AFC said it expects “all supporters, players and teams to be well behaved” during the tournament.
“Any infringement of the rules will be dealt with under the AFC regulations,” the Asian football body previously told Al Jazeera in an emailed statement.
Qatar, ranked 93 in the world, heads into the encounter with a superior head-to-head record: 12 wins and nine losses.
But the 79th-ranked UAE won its last professional match at 2015 AFC Asian Cup in Australia.
|Qatar is making its first semi-final appearance at the Asian Cup [Koki Nagahama/Getty Images]|
Mansouri, whose father was part of Qatar’s first national team in the 1960s, will be watching the semi-final with friends and family at his local majlis, a traditional tent, at his parent’s house in Qatar’s capital, Doha.
“This is the most important game of all our lives,” said Mansouri, adding that he was “too nervous” to make any special preparations or “think about food”.
“Winning this game would mean everything. It would be such a symbolic win.”
With additional reporting by Shafik Mandhai.