Abu Dhabi: The Gulf Cup may have its critics but, in a region where culture and traditions are held dear, this event does evoke a lot of pride, particularly for the six GCC countries.
Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE, Bahrain, Oman and Qatar are joined by Iraq and Yemen in the battle for the 21st Gulf Cup starting on Saturday.
For UAE football fans, this event is all the more significant as it was the national team’s first ever competition when they took part just three months after the seven emirates joined together to form the country. The UAE was formed in December 1971 and its colours were donned just two months later in the second edition of the Gulf Cup.
Though they had to wait for 35 years from that debut to win the Gulf Cup, which they did at home in 2007, the tournament is looked at with a lot of pride.
The lack of recognition from Fifa has earned the event a lot of scorn from its critics but, with the Asian Cup featuring as diverse countries such as Australia and a few former CIS states, this tournament has its own history of rivalry and fan following.
The fact that four of the eight competing nations have qualified for the World Cup — Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, UAE and Iraq — enhances the strength of competition. With Bahrain missing out twice in the play-offs in recent times and with Qatar and Iraq now in the final stages for a ticket to the next World Cup in Brazil in 2014, there is no doubt about the class of this event.
Add to that the bitter rivalry between neighbours and the mini battles, the Gulf Cup has always produced exciting fare for the fans.
With club football in the last decade witnessing significant progress towards professionalism, quite a few European clubs being owned Gulf companies and nationals and a lot of sponsorship coming from the region for international events and leagues the world over, football is without doubt the top sport of the Gulf region.
And with travel between the Gulf countries much easier now, the Gulf Cup gives fans the chance to support and back their national teams, a first step, which help them to advance and fight for Asian, Olympic or World Cup glory.
The 72nd minute strike by Esmail Mattar in the final of the 18th edition of the Gulf Cup in 2007, which made UAE champions, saw the whole country, UAE nationals as well as expatriates, join in one of the most memorable celebrations seen here.
And for those who are part of it, a Gulf Cup championship is never in vain.