FIFA on Qatar World Cup: Nations told to stick to football, not politics

FIFA president Gianni Infantino has urged the 32 nations preparing for the most political World Cup in the modern era to focus on the game in Qatar and avoid handing out lessons in morality.

A letter imploring teams to "let football take center stage" was sent by Infantino and FIFA secretary general Fatma Samoura ahead of intense media focus on coaches and players when World Cup squads are announced next week.

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"Please, let's now focus on the football!" Infantino and Samoura wrote, asking the 32 competing federations to "not allow football to be dragged into every ideological or political battle that exists."

Qatar was picked to host the World Cup in 2010, sparking scrutiny ever since regarding the country's treatment of low-paid migrant workers needed to build projects costing tens of billions of dollars and its laws criminalizing same-sex relationships.

FIFA's comments in defense of Qatar follow more strident targeting of critics in recent weeks by public officials, including Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, as the Nov. 20 kickoff nears.

The emir two weeks ago denounced "fabrications and double standards'' in what he has called an "unprecedented campaign'' against a World Cup host nation.

Eight European teams have committed to their captains wearing heart-shaped armbands -- in breach of FIFA rules -- to support an anti-discrimination campaign launched in the Netherlands, and Australia players took part in a video airing concerns about Qatar's human rights record.

Several coaches and federations, including the United States, have backed calls to create a compensation fund for migrant workers' families. Denmark, usually in red, will wear all-black jerseys as a sign of mourning for those who died in Qatar.

The Dutch soccer federation pushed back at FIFA late Friday, restating its commitment to leave "lasting improvements in the situation of migrant workers in Qatar."

The Netherlands play Qatar on Nov. 29 in Group A, and the team's officials pledged on Friday to press FIFA on creating a long-term resource center in Doha for migrant workers when world soccer's 211 member federations meet hours before attending the World Cup opening game.

Meanwhile, Iran, who are drawn in Group B alongside England, United States and Wales, have also faced calls to be removed from the World Cup.

Iranian fan groups have called for the country's federation to be suspended for discriminating against women, and Ukraine football officials asked FIFA to remove Iran from the World Cup for human rights violations and supplying the Russian military with weapons.

"We know football does not live in a vacuum and we are equally aware that there are many challenges and difficulties of a political nature all around the world," the FIFA leaders wrote in the letter on Thursday, although they did not address or identify any specific issue.

"At FIFA, we try to respect all opinions and beliefs, without handing out moral lessons to the rest of the world. One of the great strengths of the world is indeed its very diversity, and if inclusion means anything, it means having respect for that diversity."

Infantino and Samoura added: "No one people or culture or nation is 'better' than any other. This principle is the very foundation stone of mutual respect and non-discrimination. And this is also one of the core values of football."

They repeated long-standing promises made by Qatar, including by its emir at the United Nations general assembly in New York in September, that all visitors to Qatar will be welcome "regardless of origin, background, religion, gender, sexual orientation or nationality.''

In a separate in-house interview published on Friday by FIFA, Samoura acknowledged the perception of Qatar "as a conservative society, like my own country in Senegal."

"But let me tell you one thing ... Qataris are the most hospitable people you can find on earth,'' said the former U.N. official, who is also of Muslim faith. Frustration with the scrutiny on the first Arab host of the World Cup led at least two government ministers this week to suggest race as a motive.

"Is such racism acceptable in Europe in the 21st century? Football belongs to everyone,'' Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani said in an interview with French daily Le Monde published on Friday.

Labor Minister Ali bin Samikh Al Marri said this week that calls to create a compensation fund for migrant workers were a "publicity stunt,'' and cited a Qatari-backed scheme that had paid tens of millions of dollars.

FIFA and Qatari officials have long insisted hosting the World Cup accelerated the modernizing of labor laws which Samoura said on Friday were accepted as a model for regional neighbors to follow.

About 1.2 million international visitors are expected in Qatar during the Nov. 20-Dec. 18 tournament.