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.