On the eve of the 22nd Gulf Cup final, I lay in my bed and my thoughts took me ten years back, to another Gulf Cup and another final. 2004 was a landmark year for the tournament in many ways. The 17th edition was being held in Qatar and the hosts were leaving no stone unturned in making it an event to remember. To say that they took this seriously would be a tad close to understating. What transpired was a new chapter in the history of Gulf football. Now in a new garb and with a new trophy, ‘Khaleeji’ was being rebranded.
There was an air of freshness all around. For one thing, there was a trophy that reflected Gulf culture, with a ‘ghutrah’ (scarf) wrapped around. The old versions were all poor lookalikes of more famous cups. Secondly, the new Khaleeji was being taken around on the wings of Etihad Airways and beamed on the waves of Al Jazeera Sport. Both were nascent companies trying to establish themselves in the region and what better way to do that than joining hands with an old tournament seeking new pastures?
Etihad and Al Jazeera combined to engineer an extensive marketing campaign, plastering ads all over the place. I was 11 and watched the surge in excitement with fascination. This was my first experience of the Gulf Cup and although many others had gone before it, this was the first one I had even heard of. With promotional videos and billboards shoved in my face, how could I not hear about this one? That was proof that the Cup had now transcended its natural boundaries, announcing itself to people who didn’t know it existed.
On the pitch, the opening ceremony had a touch of the new too. For the first time ever, it featured the flags of eight nations. Iraq was the first team from outside the GCC to participate in the Gulf Cup. However, the events of the Gulf War led to a fourteen-year exile for the three-time champions.
The Iraqis had reason to cheer at last when Khaliji 17 organisers invited them once again. Incidentally, Iraq’s first Gulf Cup appearance was in Qatar too, back in 1976. Now, they returned to the same land to break the exile.
The Yemeni team, meanwhile, were also in Doha after making their debut the previous year. And so, the 8 teams could now be divided into two groups and play a standard league-knockout tournament, thus bringing into an end the boring league-only format in use for many years.
The opener had hosts Qatar up against the UAE at the Al-Sadd Stadium (brand new once again!). A penalty from Emirati football’s then-poster boy Subait Khater and a strike from the upcoming talent Ismail Matar seven minutes from time meant that the UAE were only minutes away from dealing the hosts an embarrassing defeat.
In the 89th minute, Qatar’s 18-year old midfielder Waleed Jassim stepped up to score with a superb free-kick. And then out of nowhere, two minutes later, a powerful shot from Wesam Rizq found its way to the net. Qatar had grabbed a point out of nothing.
There were many similarly enthralling ends to matches as the tournament progressed. A late winner from Bader al-Maymani gave Oman three points against UAE while his namesake Bader al-Mutawa did so for Kuwait against the Saudis. Qatar got a taste of their own medicine against Iraq when Haidar Abdel Amer scored the equaliser in the 92nd minute. The Iraqis had another 92nd minute equaliser in the final group game against UAE. However, it wouldn’t be of any use as they crashed out, along with their opponents.
Khaleeji 17’s only major shock was in the form of the Saudi self-destruction. The defending champions took the lead against Kuwait but were outdone by two Kuwaiti goals in the last 15 minutes. A win against Yemen followed but any hopes of making the semis vanished with a 3-0 defeat by Bahrain, a match in which star midfielder Mohammed Noor got sent off with the score at 0-0 and half an hour still to play.
My best memories will undoubtedly be from the final and of the two amazing teams that played in it. On one side you had Qatar, with the passionate support of a home crowd behind them and on the other, there was an exciting young Omani team, with a ‘golden generation’ that ensured the country a podium place for the first time in history.
And what a match it was! It took only three minutes for Wesam to open the scoring for Qatar. Waleed’s free-kick rebounded off the post but Wesam was at hand to nod it in with a helpless Ali al-Habsi looking on. Oman tried to force an equaliser and they were gifted one when Qatari keeper Saqr’s miskick deflected off Emad al-Hosni and onto the feet of al-Maymani who wasted no time in lobbing it into the goal. What followed was a hard-fought affair with neither side giving way and subsequently, penalties came calling after 120 minutes.
It would be a further two years before he went to Bolton and the Premier League but Ali al-Habsi was already making waves in the Gulf. Chosen as the best keeper at Khaleeji 16, he came into the shootout with a proven record but ended up experiencing all the highs and lows of a dramatic penalty lottery.
After al-Habsi saved Nasser Kameel’s effort, Oman went on to miss three chances to win the trophy. First, it was Khaleeji 15 top-scorer Hani al Dhabit. Then, it was al-Habsi himself, followed by Youssef Shabaan. All three watched in disbelief when, needing to score, Emad al-Hosni’s penalty rattled off the post.
The stadium erupted. I jumped up and down on my sofa. Qatar had won their second Gulf Cup, having stared at defeat thrice in the shootout. They had their keeper Saqr and the post to thank.
All in all, it was a special Cup. It set the standard for all the following editions. On and off the pitch, Khaleeji 17 met with unparalleled success. Coupled with the hosts winning, it was a cherished feather in the cap for Qatari sport.
It has always been great to see how the young stars of Khaleeji 17 fared later. All of them, regardless of whether they went on to succeed, gift me instant throwback moments – of a tournament in which they shone. It was my first Khaleeji and I haven’t missed another one since. I hope I never will.