2022 World Cup

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Qatar still “in campaign mode” to prove worthiness of 2022 WC

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SHEFFIELD, England (AP) The birthplace of modern soccer is now an unassuming site: A couple of pitches with no stands for supporters, and a ramshackle indoor facility where damp rises on the walls and paint peels from the goalposts.

When Sheffield FC formed in this northern English steel city 160 years ago, the wealth awash in the modern game was unimaginable to the founders of the world’s first soccer club. The symbol of how vastly soccer has changed is thousands of miles away in the Gulf, where stadiums are springing up in the Qatari desert and tens of billions of dollars are invested in infrastructure to ensure a tiny nation can host the 32-team World Cup in 2022.

But Olive Grove, where the first rules of the modern game were conceived by Sheffield FC’s founders, was the latest stop this week for Qatar World Cup leader Hassan Al Thawadi on a mission to convince the global football community that his country remains a worthy host of the FIFA showpiece.

Seven years after the controversial vote and five years until kickoff, doubts linger about Qatar’s suitability and right to host the Middle East’s first World Cup.

“I believe we will always be in campaign mode,” Hassan Al Thawadi, secretary general of Qatar’s World Cup organizing committee, said at the self-styled “Home of Football” in an interview with The Associated Press. “Most host nations or host cities suffered from criticism.”

Perhaps, but none on the scale faced by Qatar, which was unprepared for the sharp scrutiny that followed victory in the secret ballot that took the game’s biggest showcase to the smallest country yet.

The greatest threat to Qatar’s hosting status initially came from corruption investigators, who were troubled by some of the bid conduct but ultimately found there was no improper activity that swayed the vote.

Censure came from labor watchdogs who believed a form of modern slavery formed the backbone of World Cup construction, and Qatar was compelled to safeguard rights and conditions for migrant workers. While progress has been made in a region unaccustomed to providing such protections, Qatar still faces demands to be more transparent about the cause of worker deaths and to eradicate exploitative practices like the “kafala” sponsorship system which binds workers to their employer.

“The World Cup is a catalyst and an engine for accelerated reforms,” Al Thawadi said.

Now more powerful forces are at play threatening the World Cup: Four Arab countries have severed diplomatic ties and placed Qatar under a blockade since June in a move claimed to stop the natural-gas-rich country from supporting terrorism – charges denied by Al Thawadi.

“For whoever may want to bring this World Cup into a political debate, that is an action that they are doing unilaterally,” he said.

However sure Al Thawadi is, the World Cup will be played as scheduled from Nov. 21 to Dec. 18 2022 – contentiously chosen by FIFA to avoid the fierce summer heat in the usual June-July slot – and he is clearly troubled by attempts to undermine the tournament.

A day after speaking to The AP in Sheffield, Al Thawadi ducked out of the royal box at Wembley Stadium in London just before watching England play Germany to launch a broadside against what he perceives as efforts by Qatar’s regional rivals to bring down the World Cup.

Dubai’s security chief has already said the only way to end “Qatar’s crisis” was to give up the event, though he later said he was referring to the financial impact of hosting. An Emirati minister followed up by tweeting that Qatar’s hosting of the tournament should “include a repudiation of policies supporting extremism & terrorism.”

Lobbying firms backed by the nations opposing Doha have increasingly targeted the World Cup, while Twitter has been promoting anonymous paid posts attacking Qatar’s fitness as a tournament host, citing corruption allegations and worker abuses.

“We refuse to have this World Cup used as political pawn or a political tool because we believe in separating politics from sports … and using sports as a means of resolving conflict,” Al Thawadi said in the Wembley library. “I hope that the blockading nations see reason to be able to participate and join for the sake of the region benefiting out of this World Cup.”

The crisis has exposed the scale of risks associated with taking the World Cup to a region in flux. Stadium costs are rising after Qatar was forced to find alternative routes to import building materials, and security concerns linger.

“You can’t always prepare for a specific incident, but you can always prepare with contingency plans and be ready with a very resourceful and very quick and effective reactionary mindset as well,” Al Thawadi said. “As soon as the blockade occurred, we were able to put Plan B and Plan C quickly in place and address some of the concerns and challenges that the blockade caused.”

Originally pitched to FIFA voters as a World Cup to benefit the Middle East, the idealism appears to have been sunk. The vision could potentially be revived by sharing games with neighbors, a proposition floated externally during the bid and still perceived as an objective in the region.

“Qatar has always been open to dialogue,” Al Thawadi said. “It’s always been open and it’s always supported our brother nations, to the extent that if (sharing the World Cup) was the ultimate goal, all that would have required was a simple conversation.”

For now, England is where Al Thawadi has come to speak to shore up support for his World Cup project.

An association with the trailblazing Sheffield FC, which plays eight divisions below the Premier League, might seem tenuous. But Al Thawadi studied law at the University of Sheffield and this week he returned after 16 years to finally collect his graduation certificate during a brief presentation.

Sheffield FC sought Qatar’s assistance because it was fighting for its future and being overlooked in a country that hosts the world’s richest soccer league. It started in 2009 while Al Thawadi was canvassing for FIFA votes in South Africa, and led in 2015 to 100,000 pounds (then $153,000) being invested by Al Thawadi to help the women’s team. Now Al Thawadi is trying to spur investment from across the English game to allow Sheffield FC to leave its base on the outskirts of the city and build a 6,000-seat venue and museum at its spiritual home at Olive Grove.

“Too often the money takes the lead with Paris Saint-Germain and Neymar,” Sheffield FC chairman Richard Tims said, discussing wealth in the modern game that saw the Brazil forward bought by the Qatar-owned French club for a world record 222 million euros in August. “This project is the other end of the game.”

Clubs are being asked to donate a sum corresponding with their foundation year, and it started with Premier League champion Chelsea agreeing to hand over 1,905 British pounds at a low-key event inside the rundown sports hall at Olive Grove.

Tims flattered his guests, proclaiming: “The new pioneers of football are Qatar.” Al Thawadi then sought to assure the small group of dignitaries that the backing for Sheffield FC is a sign of Qatar’s commitment to the wider game. It is not, Al Thawadi maintained in a later interview, about latching on to Sheffield FC to add a shiny veneer to Qatar’s battered image.

“Sheffield FC represents the start of football,” he said, “but more importantly represents playing football for the love of the game.”

Qatar, though, appears locked into a perpetual struggle, requiring charm offensives like the trip to England to protect its status as 2022 hosts.

“If it means we have to continue every day validating our right to host this World Cup,” Al Thawadi said, “so be it.”

2022 World Cup head says Qatar doesn’t support terrorism

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SHEFFIELD, England (AP) The organizers of the 2022 World Cup have a message for Germany’s soccer leadership ahead of a meeting on Friday: Qatar does not support terrorism.

While discussing Qatar’s right to host the FIFA showpiece, German soccer federation president Reinhard Grindel said earlier this year that tournaments “cannot be played in countries that actively support terror.”

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When Germany plays England at Wembley Stadium on Friday, Grindel is due to come face-to-face with Hassan Al Thawadi, general secretary of Qatar’s World Cup organizing committee.

Al Thawadi told The Associated Press on Thursday that “Qatar does not support terrorism. Qatar is at the forefront of the fight against terrorism.”

Al Thawadi maintains he has a “great relationship with Grindel,” whose comments about Qatar came after neighboring Middle East countries had severed ties, accusing it of funding extremists.

UAE official: Qatar review a must before 2022 World Cup

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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) The Emirati minister of state for foreign affairs has commented on Qatar hosting the 2022 FIFA World Cup in light of the diplomatic crisis between Doha and four Arab nations.

Anwar Gargash wrote on Twitter on Tuesday: “Qatar’s hosting of World Cup 2022 should include a repudiation of policies supporting extremism & terrorism. Doha should review its record.” Doha long has denied funding extremists.

Gargash’s comments come after a Dubai security official wrote on Twitter that the only way for “Qatar’s crisis” to end is if Doha gives up the tournament. Lt. Gen. Dhahi Khalfan later said his “personal analysis” of the financial pressure Doha faces in hosting the games had been misunderstood.

Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates began its boycott of Qatar on June 5.

UAE official says Qatar giving up World Cup may end ‘crisis’

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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) A top Emirati security official has said the only way for “Qatar’s crisis” to end is if Doha gave up hosting the 2022 FIFA World Cup, his comments coming amid the ongoing diplomatic dispute between the energy-rich nation and four Arab countries.

Dubai security Lt. Gen. Dhahi Khalfan, known for being outspoken on Twitter, later wrote Monday his “personal analysis” of what he described as the financial pressure Doha faces in hosting the games had been misunderstood.

But his remarks came as lobbying firms backed by the four nations opposing Qatar in the diplomatic dispute increasingly target the upcoming soccer competition in their criticism.

The tournament has not come up in the demands previously made by the boycotting countries, though losing the World Cup would represent a bitter defeat for the tiny peninsular nation that’s pushed itself onto the world stage with its bid and its Al-Jazeera satellite news network.

Qatari officials did not respond to requests for comment on Monday. However, the 2022 tournament’s head in Qatar told The Associated Press on Friday the boycott poses “no risk” to the competition being held.

Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates all cut diplomatic ties and began a boycott of Qatar on June 5 , in part over allegations that Doha supports extremists and has overly warm ties to Iran.

Qatar has long denied funding extremists and restored full diplomatic ties to Iran amid the dispute. Doha shares a massive offshore natural gas field with Iran that makes its citizens incredibly wealthy.

On Sunday night, Khalfan targeted the FIFA tournament in his tweets.

“If the World Cup leaves Qatar, Qatar’s crisis will be over … because the crisis is created to get away from it,” he wrote.

He added: “The cost is bigger than what the Hamadein have planned,” likely referring to Qatar’s former ruling emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani and former Foreign Minister Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani. Some believe both still wield influence within Qatar’s current government now ruled by the former emir’s son, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani.

Khalfan, who previously has written controversy-catching tweets about Israel and U.S. President Donald Trump, also wrote that Qatar “is no longer our concern,” suggesting media in the boycotting countries dial back their coverage of the dispute.

By Monday night, Khalfan returned to Twitter to write that his tweets were his “personal analysis.”

“I said Qatar is faking a crisis and claims it’s besieged so it could get away from the burdens of building expensive sports facilities for the World Cup,” he tweeted.

“That’s why Qatar isn’t ready and can’t host the next World Cup,” he added.

As the crisis has dragged on despite mediation by Kuwait, the United States and European nations, Qatar’s opponents have begun targeting its hosting of the FIFA cup. They’ve pointed to allegations of corruption surrounding Qatar’s winning bid, as well as the conditions that laborers working in Qatar face in building infrastructure for the games.

While FIFA ethics investigators found that the Qataris used a full range of lavishly funded state and sports agencies to win the 2010 vote to host the tournament, authorities concluded there was no “evidence of any improper activity by the bid team.”

When Qatar’s sole land border with Saudi Arabia was closed and sea traffic cut off by the boycott, World Cup organizers were forced to instigate a “Plan B,” including bringing in supplies from Turkey.

Asked about Khalfan’s comments, FIFA said Monday: “We do not comment on speculation.”

Hassan al-Thawadi, Qatar World Cup supreme committee secretary-general, told the AP on Friday that the project remained on time despite that.

“We are aiming to make sure that this World Cup leaves a legacy for the people of the Middle East (and) is an opportunity to transform our region towards a sustainable and stable future,” he said.

Report: German publication has full FIFA corruption report

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The unedited 2014 report into World Cup bidding published by Michael Garcia has been ‘leaked’ into the press by German publication Bild.

FIFA had released a 42-page version of the report that claimed to clear corruption allegations against Qatar. This “suppressed” report is over 400 pages.

Garcia quit his job as investigator with the FIFA ethics committee in 2014, saying he believed progress in reforming FIFA had slowed considerably.

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Bild said it will publish more information and the full report on Tuesday, but the BBC notes a couple interesting facets of the initial release:

  • “Three Fifa executive members were flown to a party in Rio in a private jet belonging to the Qatari federation before the vote for 2018 and 2022 hosting rights.”
  • “Bild’s report includes details of a $2m (£1.6m) sum allegedly paid to the 10-year-old daughter of a Fifa official.”

Before you overreact, the 10-year-old is an incredibly gifted footballer.

The reporter who filed the story says the report shows no proof of a bought bid, but that it is like “a puzzle.”