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With Saudi Arabia sending a ‘B’ team, is the Gulf Cup still relevant?

LONDON: Just a few short weeks ago it looked as though this year’s Gulf Cup wouldn’t go ahead, or if it did it would be a significantly watered down version after Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain pulled out as a result of Qatar hosting.
While Kuwait’s return to international football, and subsequent return of hosting duties, has thrown the Gulf Cup a lifeline, the question has to be asked — if it did not go ahead, would it actually be missed?
There can be no doubting the Gulf Cup’s history and importance in the Middle East. Some of the best teams in the region have confirmed their superiority with Gulf Cup titles, such as Kuwait in the 1970s and 1980s, and Saudi Arabia at the turn of the century.
Regional bragging rights were, and still are, very important.
But in the modern football world, with more football to consume than ever before, is there a future for the Gulf Cup or is it a relic of bygone era?
The timing of the tournament presents the first major stumbling block, sitting outside the FIFA window meaning clubs aren’t obliged to release their players for the tournament. In the Gulf region leagues and clubs tend to play their part and either take a break or release the players, but that is certainly not the case for clubs around the world.
If football in the Gulf is to develop over the next decade, more players need to make the move to Europe to further their development. You can rest assured that no European club will allow their players to miss valuable club time to head home to participate in what is, for all intents and purposes, a series of friendly matches.
Saudi Arabia have already flagged their intentions by announcing they plan to send their ‘B’ team to the tournament. They may not have won the Gulf Cup since 2003, which may sting their pride, but with the World Cup only six months away, they have far greater priorities.
For them the Gulf Cup is just one step on a bigger journey, not the final destination. It will be used as a development opportunity as they look to unearth potential stars of the future. They are not after the short-term sugar hit that comes from winning a title, they are focusing on a longer-term plan.
And that really is the crux of the matter.
While regional rivalries are important, if the Gulf nations want to genuinely develop and be competitive on the world stage they need to broaden their view. It’s not enough anymore to just be better than your neighbors. While that may give fans and federations a warm fuzzy feeling, ultimately it means very little.
Since Saudi Arabia’s last success Qatar have won two Gulf Cups, including the last edition in 2014, but it has failed to translate into success outside the Gulf.
Gone are the days of the Gulf Cup being confirmation of the best team in the region. The past four editions of the tournament have produced four different winners, including Oman and Kuwait.
Perhaps the example set by Saudi Arabia this year could be the way forward to keep the Gulf Cup relevant. Make the Gulf Cup an U23 tournament, just like the Olympics, which also morphed from a senior tournament into an underage one.
That way the event can be a showcase of the best young talent in the region, a way to give them valuable international experience and a chance to press their claims for senior selection.
The Gulf Cup may not be as prestigious as it once was, but it can still have a future.