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Saudi legend calls for Gulf Cup changes

Two-time Asian Cup winner Al Naima wants regional tournament extended

Gulf News

Manama: As Saudi Arabia prepare to open their 21st Gulf Cup campaign here on Sunday, one of their former captains has said the competition needs to be overhauled to improve its quality and attractiveness.

The eight-team tournament has come in for criticism in some quarters, especially as it is not recognised by Fifa so star players such as Oman goalkeeper Ali Al Habsi, who plays in the English Premier League for Wigan Athletic, are not obliged to attend if called up — unlike the Africa Cup of Nations also taking place this month.

That means the quality is diluted somewhat, but the biennial competition is still a fierce source of pride in the region. But Saleh Al Naima, a defender who skippered his country to the 1984 and 1988 Asian Cup titles, believes the 43-year-old tournament has run its course.

Al Naima, who served his national team between 1979 and 1990, said the Gulf Cup is lacking in excitement and that it should be extended to involve other Arab nations in a bid to become more technically viable.

“The Gulf Cup was a necessity when it was set up back in 1970. There was a need to increase intimacy and integration between the GCC nations,” he said.

“Now, when current Gulf teams face off against North African nations, such as Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria, the level of competitiveness increases and it becomes more beneficial for the players on a technical level due to the rich experience it provides for the Gulf squads.

“There’s been a lack of progress in GCC football teams. It has to progress for the sake of future generations and in order to provide some excitement for the fans. This cannot be achieved through a tournament that is restricted to Gulf nations.”

Saudi Arabia, Gulf Cup winners in 1994, 2002 and 2003, play their first match in this year’s tournament against Iraq on Sunday night. They also face Kuwait and Yemen in a tough-looking Group B.