Alan Hubbard

"Focus on the football" comes a desperate plea from FIFA as the most politicised World Cup in history prepares for the big kickoff in Qatar just over a week from now.

The game’s international governing body wants players, fans and the media to kick the political football into touch.

Some hope. By its very nature this tournament is mired in murky controversy. More so even than the one which proceeded it four years ago in Russia.

Perversely, that old rogue Sepp Blatter, the principal architect of the blueprint which left much of the world gobsmacked in astonishment 12 years ago now does a U-turn worthy of recent British Prime Ministers, in declaring that FIFA made a mistake.

A tad late, Sepp. Most of the football world has been telling you that since you plucked the card out of the envelope which simply read: Qatar.

Unfortunately it was not April 1st. Nobody was being fooled. We are stuck with it. But FIFA are burying their heads in the Sahara sands if they believe the tournament will be protest-free off the field, or possibly even on it.

There is far too much baggage attached to Qatar for the tiny nation’s unsuitability to hosts for the biggest sporting show on earth outside the Olympic Games - which they are already eyeing up for the future.

The 85-year-old Blatter is conveniently now in denial that he was among those on the FIFA hierarchy who favoured Qatar over England and the United States.

Indeed, he claims he personally voted for the American bid, blaming the then UEFA President Michel Platini for swinging it the way of the oil and gas rich Gulf State.

"For me it is clear - Qatar is a mistake, the choice was bad," he told a Swiss newspaper, adding "it’s too small a country. Football and the World Cup are too big for that."

Of course, Blatter omitted to mention that the main gripe about Qatar’s coup has nothing to do with its size, but it’s medieval stance on human rights, treatment of migrant workers, so many of whom lost their lives helping construct the eight state of the stadiums and necessary infrastructure, and the banning of homosexuality, which until recently was punishable by death.

It will be surprising if there are no demonstrations over these iniquities. There are players from several countries, notably England and Australia, who are prepared to make their feelings known, either vocally or by the wearing of armbands.

FIFA has urged teams to
FIFA has urged teams to "focus on the football" in the build-up to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar ©Getty Images

It is true that the World Cup organisers have given an assurance that any fans from the LGTBQ+ community will not only be welcome but thats a blind eye will be turned to same sex hand holding - but no snogging or canoodling.

And as I revealed here last week definitely no sex between unmarried couples who will not be allowed to share hotel rooms. What will the girlfriends among the WAGs make of that we wonder?

Despite FIFA’s promise that all will be welcome in Qatar regardless of origin, background, religion, gender, sexual orientation or nationality consider this.

Just to add to the confusion, one of Qatar’s best known personalities, Khalid Salman, a former footballer who is a World Cup ambassador has intimated that his country’s anti-gay stance remains rigid and that homosexuality is "damage in the mind."

Hassan Al Thawadi from Qatar’s World Cup Organising Committee also has stated that "whether it is a gay couple or otherwise, public displays of affection are not part of our culture."

What is indisputable is that the principal reason Qatar splashed the cash to acquire the World Cup is not because of a particular fondness for football, but to give their totalitarian regime a veneer of respectability, as is the case with the "sportswashing" that is going on in neighbouring Saudi Arabia.

Countless international PR organisations have been hired to help with Qatar’s image makeover.

Not content with that, the Qatari Government, quite audaciously, are subsiding supporters’ groups from several of the 32 competing nations, including 40 from England, to be their guests for the duration of the tournament.

Fares and hotel accommodation will be paid for in return for the selected fans writing positive messages about the country and the tournament on social media.

But in what seems more than somewhat sinister, they will also be asked to report any criticisms I hear from fellow fans to the authorities. That seems scandalous.

Journalists are also being urged to stick to writing about the football and not the politics.

If they do not like the idea that the tournament is being held in Qatar they should stay at home is the edict.

Final preparations are taking place in Qatar for what is set to be the most politicised and controversial FIFA World Cup in history ©Getty Images
Final preparations are taking place in Qatar for what is set to be the most politicised and controversial FIFA World Cup in history ©Getty Images

Well I personally hope we shall witness some fabulous football, even if it is happening in the wrong place at the wrong time of the year for most teams.

Because of the prevailing conditions fortune will favour teams who are heat-resistant. My fancy is for an Argentina-Belgium final.

But what of England? I worry that they might fall at the first hurdle. The opening match against Iran on Monday (November 21) is a potential banana skin.

While they are no soccer superpower the Iranians are in good form having qualified by topping their group with 19 points from seven games.

They recently beat Uruguay 1-0 in a friendly. Overseen by veteran Portuguese coach Carlos Queiroz ,69, who was once an assistant to Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United, they are the top team in Asia and will be fired up to beat England, as well as the United States and Wales, who are also in Group B.

Iran have no love for Western nations and the game with England, in particular, could be politically charged in view of the vexed history between the two nations.

Surely it is questionable whether Iran should be in the tournament. There have been calls from several nations for them to be ousted, not least from Ukraine who believe they are supplying Russia with lethal drones.

Moreover for some 40 years half the Iranian 86 million population have been prohibited from watching football - the female half.

Only recently have a few women been allowed into football Stadiums following a yellow card from FIFA.

This is certainly no easy group for England, who are notoriously slow starters in early World Cup matches.

All three opposing teams employ resolute tactics. And the United States are now a much better team than the one which caused one of the World Cup’s biggest upsets by beating England 1-0 at Belo Horizonte, Brazil in 1952.

The late Sir Alf Ramsey, who was to go on to manage the only England team to win the World Cup in 1966, was once asked if he was playing in that ignominious defeat.

"Yes," he replied tersely. "And I was the only one wot bleedin’ was!"