By Paul Nicholson
June 12 – FIFA president Gianni Infantino has expressed confidence that the diplomatic crisis surrounding Qatar in the middle east will not threaten the 2022 World Cup, but that FIFA is monitoring the situation closely.
“The essential role of FIFA, as I understand it, is to deal with football and not to interfere in geopolitics. Nevertheless, it is true that FIFA must remain attentive to what is happening. We are therefore watching closely the evolution of the situation. We are also in regular contact with the highest authorities in Qatar and the organising committee,” Infantino told Swiss newspaper Le Matin Dimanche.
The Gulf Cup, scheduled to be played in Qatar at the end of this year, has already been postponed but there is still four years before the first of the two major FIFA events to be hosted in Qatar – the Confederations Cup in 2021.
Infantino stressed that he is “confident the region will return to a normal situation.” Commonsense and historical precedent would suggest this will be the case but the real question is how long before that can happen and will there be any impact on the construction preparations for 2022.
These are uncertain times geo-politically with a US president having gifted the opportunity to Saudi Arabia to exert extreme political pressure on Qatar and its ruling family over claims that it funds Islamic fundamentalist terrorism. A claim that is somewhat disingenuous coming from a country with even clearer links to terrorism and is engaged in a bitter struggle for regional dominance with Iran.
US president Donald Trump’s efforts at curbing terrorism were ironically opened in the region with a billion dollar arms deal secured on a visit to Riyadh. What Trump arrogantly and naively fails to recognise is that there is much more to political negotiation than money – it isn’t as simple as being just another deal and a box to be ticked.
By steering a middle course through the politics of the region, Qatar is in danger of becoming the sacrificial victim as bigger powerbrokers parade their muscle. It is the smallest country in the region and while it has tried to remain relations with all of its neighbours, it has also maintained its independence from their politics and pressures. But this has left it vulnerable and the playing of the terrorism card
The World Cup preparations are the physical example of how the country is evolving and there is no doubt that the country has become an influencer in world football though various of its initiatives from integrity bodies to education and technology. The World Cup construction programme itself has spawned a number of high technology and regional specific technological breakthroughs that will facilitate change outside of the football bubble.
Infantino’s voice is considerably less hysterical in the diplomatic world than many of the voices predicting doom or driving their political agendas. He offered his support in resolving the crisis, saying: “We are indeed facing a diplomatic crisis. But on the other hand, I am confident that the region will return to a standardised situation. The World Cup is in 2022. In five years. Obviously, if football can make a small contribution, in any way whatsoever, to an improvement, I will not hesitate to offer my help.
Key figures in the US have repeatedly said in the past that they could step in to fill the gap if Qatar were unable to host, but realistically opening up that avenue again would only inflame the situation – a statement from the US (if only from the US federation) supporting Qatar’s 2022 hosting would of course be helpful, unlikely as it is.
Meanwhile the anti-Qatar rhetoric ratcheted up to new levels with news that the wearing of a Barcelona shirt in Saudi Arabia could land the wearer with a fine of up to £120,000 and a 15-year prison sentence, due to the club’s ties with Qatar Airways and their logo on the front of the club’s shirt. And in the UAE – whose level of anti-Qatar vehemence has surprised observers within the region – expressions of support on Facebook for beleaguered Qataris can similarly led to criminal prosecution.
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