Doha: Qatar coach Felix Sanchez has vowed to "isolate" his players from politics at the Asian Cup, which is taking place in the United Arab Emirates during a diplomatic crisis between the countries.
"This (political situation) is something we've discussed with the players," he told AFP. "They are very conscious and I am convinced that during the competition they will be able to maintain their focus on the sport."
The tournament represents the first visit by the Qatari national side to the UAE since the beginning of a row that has transformed the Gulf and left Doha cut off from its neighbouring former allies.
Two of the other nations who have enforced the boycott also have teams in the tournament, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.
Qatar will meet Saudis in a Group E match in Abu Dhabi on January 17.
On the pitch, Qatar have shown a distinct improvement since Sanchez took charge in 2017.
Initially seen as a stop-gap appointment at the end of a failed World Cup qualification campaign, the 43-year-old Spaniard has transformed the team.
He has placed emphasis on young, largely Qatari-born players -- rather than imported stars -- who have progressed through the Aspire Academy, an expensively-built Doha training centre which seeks to hothouse local talent.
These include forward Akram Afif, the first Qatari to play in Spain's La Liga, and defender Abdulkarim Hassan, just voted the AFC 2018 player of the year.
In November, Qatar achieved its most notable international victory, beating Switzerland 1-0 in Lugano.
The average age of Qatar's starting line-up in Switzerland was 24 years and 195 days, and 13 of the 25 players who travelled to Europe were Aspire graduates.
Sanchez has worked with the Qatari players at every level from the academy through the Under-19s, Under-20s, Under-23s and now the full team.
It is the beginning of a massive year for Sanchez and Qatar, who will also play in the Copa America later in 2019.
In an Asian Cup group also consisting of Lebanon and North Korea, a resurgent "al-Annabi" (the Maroons) will be confident of reaching the knockouts.
It is the tenth time they have qualified for the Asian Cup but have never progressed further than the quarterfinals.