Middle Eastern rivals face off in Asian Champions League

Japan's Kashima Antlers won the 2018 AFC Champions League title. (AFP Photo)
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Clubs from Iran, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Qatar will meet once again in a politically-charged group stage of the 2019 AFC Champions League but officials are confident that football can help to bring the squabbling neighbours together.

Asia’s premier club football competition, which features 32 teams, is split into two geographic zones, east and west, until the final. It means that the group stage, drawn on Thursday in Kuala Lumpur, is full of regional rivalries.

The toughest group puts the champions of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates together as Al Hilal, Al Duhail and Al Ain meet. Additionally, Al Sadd of Qatar, winners in 2011, have been drawn with Saudi Arabia’s Al Ahli.

Saudi Arabia, as well as the United Arab Emirates, broke off diplomatic relations with Qatar in June 2017. Saudi Arabia and Iran also cut ties in January 2016 and matches between clubs from the two countries are played in neutral venues.

Despite requests from UAE and Saudi Arabia in 2018 that meetings with Qatari clubs also be played in neutral venues, the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) insisted otherwise.

Qatar’s Al Sadd are confident that the same will be the case in February when the tournament gets under way.

“We are in a group with a Saudi Arabian team and an Iranian team,” Al Sadd manager Mohammed Al Berik told AFP. “We played in 2018 and everything went safely.

“The football is football. The language of football is for everyone and we didn’t have any problems. We will go to play at the end of the world if we have to.”

Japan’s Kashima Antlers won the 2018 title.

West Zone

Group A: Al Wasl (UAE), Al Zawraa Club (IRQ), Winner of Playoff 4, Winner of Playoff 2

Group B: Al Ittihad (KSA), Al Wadha FSCC (UAE), Uzbekistan 1st Club, Winner of Playoff 3

Group C: Al Duhail SC (QAT), Al Hilal (KSA), Al Ain (UAE), Esteghlal FC (IRN)

Group D: Persepolis (IRN), Al Sadd (QAT), Al Ahli Saudi (KSA), Winner of Playoff 1

East Zone

Group E: Korea Rep. 3rd Club, Johor Darul Ta’zim (MAS), Winner of Playoff 4, Winner of Playoff 2

Group F: Guangzhou Evergrande (CHN), Korea Rep. 2nd Club, Melbourne Victory (AUS), Winner of Playoff 3

Group G: Japan 2nd Club, China PR 2nd Club, Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors (KOR), Buriram United (THA)

Group H: Sydney FC (AUS), Kawasaki Frontale (JPN), Shanghai SIPG (CHN), Winner of Playoff 1

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