ABU DHABI - Asian Cup host United Arab Emirates needed a late penalty from a handball to salvage a 1-1 draw with Bahrain on Saturday in the opening match of a tournament taking place against the backdrop of a regional diplomatic crisis.
Bahrain was close to snatching a win after Mohamed Al Rohaimi scored from the center of the area in the 78th minute. But Mohamed Marhoon handled the ball in the box, sending Ahmed Khalil to the spot to snatch the equalizer with two minutes remaining.
UAE and Bahrain share Group A with India and Thailand.
Japan is in Group F with Uzbekistan, Oman, and Turkmenistan. The Japanese will face Turkmenistan in their first match on Jan. 9.
Former Japan manager Alberto Zaccheroni is leading UAE in the tournament.
“The crowd was like a 12th man for us, so I wish we could have given them the victory,” Zaccheroni said.
“But we will have to take this lesson and move on. The important thing is to evolve gradually from one game to the next and grow into the tournament.”
Zaccheroni steered Japan to the continental title in 2011, but his Emirates side has flatlined in the run-up to this year’s competition, scoring just 10 goals in 18 games under the Italian.
Missed opportunities came back to haunt the team on Saturday, when Bahrain went ahead in the 78th minute after Alromaihi bundled home after his initial header appeared to have crossed the line.
Sami Alhusaini almost equalized five minutes from time, only for goalkeeper Sayed Alawi to pull off a stunning block.
But Jordanian referee Adham Makhadmeh pointed to the spot for what appeared to be an unintentional handball to offer the hosts a lifeline.
Khalil, appearing in his 100th international, displayed nerves of steel as rifled the spot kick into the top corner to send a raucous crowd of 33,000 wild.
Bahrain coach Miroslav Soukup refused to criticize the referee afterwards.
“You could maybe say it was hard luck,” said the Czech. “I didn’t see it and I haven’t seen the video, but the players were in the locker room saying it wasn’t a deliberate handball — so it’s bad luck.”
The Asian Cup has expanded to 24 teams this year. There were 16 in 2015, when Australia won the title on home soil. The holder opens its defense on Sunday when it plays Jordan in Group B.
Qatar is among the 24 finalists while the country is being boycotted diplomatically and economically by regional rivals, including the UAE and Saudi Arabia. That has led to air links to Doha being severed by the UAE, impacting players, officials, and media.
The chairman of the Asian Cup organizing committee is Qatari, and Saoud al-Mohannadi’s entry to the UAE was delayed this week, bringing the Asian Football Confederation deeper into the Persian Gulf political standoff.
The AFC said it received reports from Qatar that al-Mohannadi was unable to travel to the UAE from Muscat in Oman, despite having been “assured of visas and entry permits for all AFC organizing committee and executive members.” The AFC said on Friday that al-Mohannadi, who is also a vice president of the soccer confederation, was in Abu Dhabi.
Qatar’s Sports Press Committee said on Friday a five-member media delegation was banned from entering the UAE despite having entry visas. The AFC, which previously said journalists would be subject to a “security check” by UAE authorities, said it assured the Qatari journalists they would be allowed in to cover the tournament.
“We are in contact with the LOC (local organizing committee) as these journalists had been approved by the authorities,” the AFC said on Saturday.
Anyone watching the tournament in the UAE has to watch a feed from Qatar state-owned broadcaster BeIN Sports, which is the host broadcaster and holds the exclusive regional rights. But traveling media reported their official tournament hotel did not carry BeIN, which was blocked for a time in the UAE in 2017 at the start of the boycott of Qatar.
In a proxy battleground of the Riyadh-led boycott of Qatar, BeIN has accused Saudi Arabia of being behind the pirating of its live sports broadcasts on the BeOutQ channel. In a warning issued on Saturday, the AFC said it was aware “unauthorized broadcasters” may attempt to screen Asian Cup matches but did not publicly call out the Saudis.
“The AFC, in order to protect the rights of its broadcast partners, has issued ‘cease and desist’ notices to the infringers,” the governing body said. “The AFC takes any breaches of its commercial agreements very seriously and will also continue to take whatever action is appropriate to protect the interests of all its commercial partners.”