The diplomatic crisis in the Persian Gulf, like almost every other event, has an impact on sports as well, particularly when it comes to soccer. Last week's decision by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Yemen and Libya to cut ties with Qatar, which is now under a diplomatic siege of sorts, also has implications for future sporting events in the Gulf emirate, which is due to host the soccer's FIFA World Cup in 2022.
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There have been tensions in the Persian Gulf for a long time now, and they have spilled over into soccer. One recent example is the matches played over the past three weeks in the Asian Football Confederation between the Iranian team Estaghlal Khuzestan and Saudi Arabia's Al-Hilal squad. The bad blood between the two Muslim countries, one extremist Shi’ite and the other extremist Sunni-Wahhabi, and the fact that they don't have diplomatic relations, led the matches to be played at a neutral location, which has now become the new normal.
The Iranians were considered the host team in Oman, and lost 2-1 to the Saudis, who hosted the rematch, ironically in Qatar, winning again 2–1 and moving up to the quarter-finals. Incidentally, this week another Saudi team, Al-Ahli, drew another Iranian team, Persepolis, and it’s not at all certain what will happen now.
Just a day after the decision to cut ties with Qatar, Al-Ahli announced that it was suspending its sponsorship contract with Qatar Airways, a move that was clearly dictated from higher ups in the Saudi regime itself, which the team was frank about on Twitter.
By the way, Qatar Airways was not only the sponsor of the Saudi team; it also funded the renovation of the team’s home stadium. It was also Barcelona’s sponsor and last year a match even took place between Al-Ahli and Barcelona sponsored by the Qatari airline.
This all demonstrates the extent to which Qatar has not only hosted and is planning on hosting major sporting events. The emirate also provides a home pitch for soccer matches for teams from countries that can’t host their matches in their own country. Teams from Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and the Palestinian Authority have already hosted games in Qatar, so the current state of affairs following Qatar's diplomatic isolation, really requires a rethink.
The Asian Football Confederation said it was following the situation and at the moment and that there is no impact on the Champions League and the Asian cups because no Qatari team is playing in the European competitions. If need be, neutral sites for games would be found.
But it’s clear that this is something much bigger. In December, for example, Qatar is supposed to host the Gulf Cup of Nations, held every two or three years. The last time it was held -- in Saudi Arabia in 2014 -- Qatar beat Saudi Arabia in the finals. If the event is moved out of the Gulf States or cancelled, it would be a good indication of what lies ahead for the real thing -- the 2022 World Cup finals.
Holding the World Cup in Qatar would be scandalous even apart from political considerations – including the country's support for terrorism. Qatar received the lowest score of all the bids submitted at the time, and the fact that it bribed the head of FIFA and bought the World Cup for itself is no longer considered just a conspiratorial allegation, as was claimed in 2010 after it won the bid, but rather as a fact proven by the Americans, the Swiss and others.
Qatar also promised that there would be no problem holding the World Cup during the summer, which is of course impossible in the sweltering desert heat, and they broke a specific pledge and moved the matches to the winter. And then there is the matter of the hundreds of foreign workers who have died and will continue to die in shocking working conditions with the support of the authorities in preparing for the World Cup. None of this made FIFA change its mind, and perhaps worse, it didn't cause Europe's soccer leadership to protest Qatar's hosting the games.
When some of FIFA's major sponsors abandoned it or threatened to do so over the corruption cases, the company that came in as a sponsor was none other than -- you guessed it -- Qatar Airways. What FIFA fails to do, the Sunni Muslim countries may step in to accomplish. What's important here after all is the final result.
The Qataris are in deep trouble now. They are investing tens of millions of dollars in sporting events. They are due to host the world championship in athletics in 2019, and then the jewel in the crown, the World Cup. But with its only land border, with Saudi Arabia, closed, as well much of its air space, as Qatari hoard food, if the situation continues, hosting the World Cup finals suddenly appears at risk.
Through its investments in sports, Qatar’s ruling family wants to improve the country’s image. Qatar doesn’t care about corruption, human rights, hot weather or and a lot of other things because FIFA doesn’t care and neither does the European soccer federation, UEFA, or the heads of the major teams themselves.
Now the West has its chance to join forces with Arab countries and do something so that the World Cup won’t be held where many would argue it shouldn’t have been held in the first place.