GENEVA (AP) — FIFA’s top officials have urged the 32 teams 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 urging teams to “let football take center stage” was sent by FIFA president Gianni Infantino and secretary general Fatma Samoura ahead of intense media focus on coaches and players when World Cup squads are announced next week.
“Please, let’s now focus on the football!” Infantino and Samoura wrote, asking the 32 soccer federations to “not allow football to be dragged into every ideological or political battle that exists.”
Qatar being picked in 2010 as World Cup host sparked scrutiny on its 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 follows more strident targeting of critics in recent weeks by public officials, including the 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’s squad is taking a black team jersey 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 plays 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.
Iran has also faced calls to be removed before it plays England in the second game of the World Cup on Nov. 21 in a group that also includes the U.S.
Iranian fan groups want the federation suspended for discriminating against women, and Ukraine soccer officials asked FIFA to remove Iran from the World Cup for human rights violations and supplying the Russian military with weapons.
Infantino moved from Switzerland to live in Doha for the past year during preparations for what he has consistently said would be the best World Cup ever.
“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 on Thursday in their letter that 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 was 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.