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Anthony Harwood

Saudi fake news will not destroy The Beautiful Game

An artist's impression of a Qatar 2022 World Cup venue in al-Khor [Getty]

Date of publication: 1 March, 2018

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Comment: If Saudi orchestrated fake news continues to use Qatar's 2022 World Cup as a political football, the game as a whole will suffer, writes Anthony Harwood.
It's not the first time sport has been used as a political football.
 
Adolf Hitler used the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin to show off Germany's might. In 1980 America boycotted the Olympics in Moscow in protest against the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan, and four years later the Russians hit back, staying away from Los Angeles over "security concerns".
 
More recently football's world governing body, FIFA, has found itself caught up in disputes at a more local level, such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Russian annexation of Crimea.
 
But now things have well and truly gone global again, with the use of the World Cup 2022 as a political football that looks like being kicked around for the next four years.
 
Ironically, one of the reasons for awarding Qatar the tournament was because the Middle East had never hosted sport's most prestigious event. It was held up as something for the whole region to rally around and be part of together.
 
Sadly, this has so far not proved to be. So intense are rivalries in the region that the decision has only served to drive Arab neighbours apart.
 
Nine months ago when Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain launched a diplomatic and transport blockade  of Qatar they accused the tiny Gulf state of cosying up to Iran and supporting terrorism, which Doha denies.
 
But the belief has persisted that the quartet, which also includes Egypt, were more driven by jealousy that Qatar was able to bask in the spotlight as a World Cup host-to-be.
The quartet were driven by jealousy that Qatar was able to bask in the spotlight as a World Cup host-to-be
The cat was out of the bag when the UAE security chief Dhahi Khalfan said the boycott would be called off if Qatar was stripped of the tournament over claims it bribed FIFA officials for their votes.
 
That was in October, four months after the Saudi-led alliance orchestrated its isolation of the Doha government with 13 ludicrous demands  that included cutting off diplomatic relations with Iran and closing down the internationally-respected TV station, Al Jazeera.
 
Maybe they should have inserted a 14th demand: Move the World Cup to Riyadh.
 
For part of the (unsuccessful) Saudi strategy has been to weaken Qatar economically with the blockade, until it is deemed too "unstable" to host the event.
 
So in October it peddled a story based on a risk report which claimed there was "an increasing political risk that Qatar may not host the World Cup in 2022".
 
These types of stories always makes me think: "Well, if you're worried about Qatar getting too weak to host the World Cup then call off the blockade! But, of course, you don't want Qatar to host…"
 
The highly speculative study was carried out by a management consultants firm whose owner had been fiercely critical of Qatar on social media.
 
It was full of doom-laden prophesies including the prospect of a coup in the country. Clearly it would be difficult for Qatar to host the World Cup if its Emir was being overthrown. But the reality is that the Qatari people have rallied round their leader in adverse times.
 
So what we're seeing is fake news being used to turn The Beautiful Game into a political football. FIFA can say these reports are nonsense until they're blue in the face, but that wouldn't stop them.
 
Another example surfaced this week, after the Saudi sports minister Turki al-Sheikh took to Twitter to raise the spectre of the tournament being taken off Qatar and handed to either England or the US.
 
His actual words didn't amount to anything other than wishful thinking. But, once they'd been spun up by a German media outlet (to give the story European credibility) and put out on Dubai-based TV channels, the FIFA World Cup trophy was as good as on its way out of Doha.
 
"How can this be?" I thought. It was only three weeks ago that FIFA President Gianni Infantino had been praising Qatar's World Cup preparations and insisting everything was on track. Can everything have changed in such a short space of time?
 
To satisfy my curiosity I spoke to a FIFA official in the know after a contact passed me a number. He was amazed I was even asking him if the reports were true.
 
"We had something like this last year and it was just totally fabricated," he said. "You don't want to waste your time on this one.

Read more: Why has the FA changed its tune on Qatar's World Cup?
 
"Honestly, if something of this magnitude was going to happen why would it be a Saudi minister telling the world? No, if something like this was going to happen FIFA would come out and make a statement.
 
"These types of stories are going to keep happening because there are so many political things going on over there (in the Gulf), and so many different interests. It's in the interests of some people to have a story like this, maybe not in some other people's interests.
 
"This is a story that's really come out nowhere, and it's going nowhere. If you look at any of the forums or online it's all the same countries that are talking about it, and I'm sure they have their own reasons were for doing that."
 
So there you have it. The political football well and truly being booted about.
'If something of this magnitude was going to happen why would it be a Saudi minister telling the world?' - FIFA official
According to Turki al-Sheikh's Tweet, Qatar hosting will be done for "if found guilty of any ethical violations". But we've already been through this with the Garcia Report last summer which concluded there was no "smoking gun" showing that either Qatar, or Russia, which won the bids, bribed officials to get votes.
 
The probe by FIFA investigator, Michael Garcia, did show that all the countries bidding were "at it". By this, I mean, they were all mired in dodgy backroom deals.
 
Even the British royal family were dragged into the murky world of FIFA World Cup bids.
 
Imagine officials sitting round and discussing whether they could get away with an honorary knighthood from the Queen for a South American FIFA voter.
 
Or Prince William in a meeting with then Prime Minister David Cameron discussing a shady vote-swapping deal with South Korea.
 
Well, it happened, just as did England's agreement to play a friendly with Thailand to get that particular country's support. FA boss Geoff Thompson later told how uncomfortable he felt "because I think it's a form of bribery".
 
One thing which made me sceptical about this week's reports was the fact that the English Football Association boss was in Doha just two weeks ago signing a "memorandum of understanding" with Qatar to share knowledge and expertise in the run-up to 2020.
 
Now, Greg Clarke would hardly have been doing that if the rug was about to be pulled from under the Qataris, would he?
 
"Beware jealousy, 'tis the green-eyed monster" says Iago to Othello. The sad fact is that the Saudis and Emiratis are so eaten up by their jealousy of Qatar that they are prepared to go against the spirit of the World Cup as set out by Mr Infantino when he said on 8 February:
 
"I hope that there would be broad collaboration and co-operation for the World Cup between the countries in the region. At the end of the day this is a World Cup for the whole region."

Even those with no understanding of the offside rule will appreciate that it is football that will suffer if Saudi Arabia and its friends continue like this for the next four years.
 
 

Anthony Harwood is a former foreign editor of the Daily Mail.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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