AFC working to fill stadiums at Asian Cup

The Asian Football Confederation insisted Friday it is
comfortable with attendance numbers after a week of Asian Cup
matches, despite several played in near-empty stadiums.

AFC officials and Qatari organizers said it was heartening to
see the good turnout and festive atmosphere as Jordan beat Saudi
Arabia Thursday night but were also questioned by reporters over
several games that failed to attract much interest and no stadiums
were full. Only 3,481 turned out to watch Uzbekistan beat Kuwait on
Wednesday at the 22,000-seat Al-Gharafa stadium while 3,639 were at
the 12,500-seat Qatar Sports Club on Tuesday to watch United Arab
Emirates play North Korea.

”We are satisfied with the crowds in stadiums, not only numbers
but the atmosphere,” AFC Competitions Director Tokuaki Suzuki.
”Of course, we need to improve. If all matches were a full house,
it would be better.”

The challenges of filling stadiums seems to be perennial problem
at second-tier tournaments, and there was also plenty of empty
seats at the Asian Games and Commonwealth Games last year. But
there is extra pressure on organizers in Qatar to sell tickets,
since this tournament is seen as a dry run of sorts for its hosting
the 2022 World Cup.

It has so far refused to give away tickets – pointing out that
the cheapest tickets are already less than $2 – but has vowed to do
a better job of reaching out to corporations, schools and the
expatriate communities which make up 80 percent of the 1.6-million
population in the desert nation.

”This is our target, to have stadiums full,” said Jassim
al-Rumaihi, operations director at the tournament. ”We are in
touch with all nationalities, communities in all areas in the Gulf.
We try to attract them to come over, giving them visa very quickly
and good transportation at the airport.”

Part of the problem for organizers is the relatively low number
of fans that have traveled from countries like Japan or Australia
to support their teams. Also, they have struggled to convince
supporters from neighboring countries like the UAE and Kuwait to
come, which highlights the Gulf’s on-and-off love affair with its
national teams.

The other problem, organizers said, is that scores of
corporations have bought batches of tickets but are not making use
of them. It was unclear how widespread this problem was, but the
opener between Qatar and Uzbekistan was reportedly sold out even
though the stadium had scores of empty seats.

”If Qataris like football, they should come to the stadium,”
Iran coach Afshin Ghotbi said ahead of its opener this week with
Iraq, for which the stadium was only one-third full.

”Come to the matches in support, not only of the Qatari team,
but in support of the tournament and the game of football,” he
said. ”The world is watching Qatar to see if they are able to host
the 2022 World Cup. It’s important the seats are full.”

UAE coach Sreko Katanec said he was hopeful more supporters
would be at its match Saturday against Iraq.

”I hope we have more fans and that’s it. Normally the players
will give more if you have support from the fans,” he said.
”That’s the point of football, because without a crowd, it’s not
football.”

Al-Rumaihi said he expected the crowds to grow as the tournament
progress and said ticket sales were increasing.

”Hopefully, we will see more spectators from Asia, Japan,
Korea,” he said. ”You will see a difference all the time as we
reach the final hopefully.”

Associated Press writers Barbara Surk and Caroline Cheese
contributed to this report.