FIFA urges World Cup teams to focus on soccer over politics

ZURICH (AP) — Soccer'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.

Eight European teams have committed to their captains wearing heart-shaped armbands — in breach of FIFA rules — to support an anti-discrimination campaign.

Several coaches and federations 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.

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 United States.

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.

“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 their letter Thursday 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.”

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

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The Associated Press