Clubs from Iran, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) 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 neighbors 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 UAE 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 UAE, 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 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 Agence France-Presse (AFP). "We played in 2018 and everything went safely.
"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 but did not qualify for the 2019 version.
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