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MIDEAST > Middle East looms large as FIFA executives meet

JAMES M. DORSEY

From the controversial World Cup bidding to headscarf ban, Middle Eastern football’s issues are among the top agenda at the FIFA Executive Committee meeting which started in Zurich yesterday

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FIFA President Sepp Blatter will have a busy agenda as the FIFA  Executive Committee meets  amid demands for sweeping  reforms in the game. REUTERS photo

FIFA President Sepp Blatter will have a busy agenda as the FIFA Executive Committee meets amid demands for sweeping reforms in the game. REUTERS photo

The Middle East is looming large in the football world as FIFA’s executive committee meets amid demands for sweeping reforms that would involve Qatar’s controversial 2022 World Cup bid, football violence in Egypt and women’s rights.

The call for an investigation of Qatar is believed to be one recommendation in a report by FIFA’s governance committee headed by Swiss lawyer and criminology professor Mark Pieth. The committee was created last year to propose reforms in the wake of the worst corruption scandal in the world football body’s 108-year history. 

Qatari national and FIFA Vice President Mohammed Bin Hammam was banned for life last year from involvement in professional football on charges of bribery and corruption. Bin Hammam, who has denied the allegations and is fighting the ban, was the highest of several executives who were penalized or resigned to evade punishment.

Qatar, despite the downfall of Bin Hammam, evaded investigation of its World Cup bid with the backing of FIFA President Sepp Blatter, who sidestepped calls for an inquiry by a British parliamentary committee, as well as the former head of the German Football Federation. 

Qatar, the first Middle Eastern nation to be awarded the world’s largest sporting event, has denied allegations that it bribed members of the FIFA executive committee. The Qatari bid committee seemingly squashed charges of wrongdoing when it produced a disgruntled former employee who confessed to having forged documents leaked to the media that suggested it had violated FIFA bid rules.

Pieth’s recommendations, if adopted by the FIFA executive committee during next week’s meeting in Zurich, would then have to be approved by the football body’s general assembly, which is scheduled for May. The recommendations also include appointing independent directors as members of the executive committee, transparency on FIFA salaries and the creation of an external judicial body to address corruption issues. They also call for the probes of the multiple FIFA scandals in the last two years, including the awarding of the 2018 and 2022 world cups to Russia and Qatar, respectively. 

“We have looked closely at the way allegations regarding those World Cup host selections have been dealt with, and we have not been satisfied with the level of investigation which has taken place,” former British Attorney General Lord Goldsmith, a member of Pieth’s governance committee, told The Daily Mail. 

Political interference in Egypt

FIFA’s tarnished credibility is similarly on the line with the blatant interference of Egypt’s military rulers in the dealings of the Egyptian Football Association (EFA) following last month’s deadly clash in a stadium in the Suez Canal city of Port Suez that left 74 people dead, mostly ultras of Cairo giants Al-Ahly SC.

The Egyptian government has dismissed Blatter’s denunciation of its dismissal of the EFA board that had been appointed by the regime of ousted President Hosni Mubarak. The dismissal added insult to injury in the face of FIFA’s largely longstanding refusal to fight political interference in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa.

Indeed, the government went beyond replacing the EFA board to dictating to its newly appointed protégés the penalties to be meted out to Al-Ahly and Port Said’s Al-Masry SC for the clash that many believe was pre-planned and designed to punish militant, highly-politicized soccer fans for their key role in the mass protests that ousted Mubarak and their opposition to his military successors.

The EFA banned Al-Masry from playing in Egypt’s premier league for two seasons, one of which was canceled as a result of the Port Said incident, and closed the city’s stadium for three years. The football body further instructed Al-Ahly to play four matches behind closed doors and suspended the club’s Portuguese coach, Manuel Jose, as well as midfielder Hossam Ghaly, for an equal number of games in a decision that satisfied no one as it was made in close coordination with Egypt’s military rulers and failed to address the underlying causes of the football violence.

The government’s approach, as well as the EFA ruling, reflect a refusal to address the deep-seated animosity between security forces and militant football fans stemming from years of almost weekly clashes in Egyptian stadiums and the growing frustration among youth groups and soccer fans who were at the core of last year’s popular revolt that they are being marginalized while the aims of their uprising are being shunted aside in favor of vested interests. As in the case of Port Said, FIFA looked the other way as Egyptian football was increasingly politicized by the Mubarak regime and did little to halt its control of the EFA as well as of premier league clubs.

On a positive note, FIFA earlier this month backed a decision by the International Football Association Board (IFAB) to allow observant women Muslim players to wear a headdress that meets the requirements of their faith as well as safety and security standards. The campaign, spearheaded by FIFA Vice President Prince Ali Bin al-Hussein, a half-brother of Jordanian King Abdullah, marks one of several recent advances in securing women’s right to professional sports.

Questions have been raised about FIFA’s failure to convince Saudi Arabia to allow women to play football in the kingdom, especially after the International Olympic Committee exerted successful pressure on Riyadh to field female athletes for the first time at this year’s Olympic Games in London.

International human rights group Human Rights Watch last month accused Saudi Arabia of kowtowing to assertions by the country’s powerful conservative Muslim clerics that female sports constitute “steps of the devil” that will encourage immorality and reduce women’s chances of meeting the requirements for marriage. In defiance of obstacles to their right to engage in sports, women have in recent years quietly been establishing football and other sports teams using extensions of hospitals and health clubs as their base.

The Human Rights Watch accusation followed Saudi Arabian backtracking on a plan to build its first stadium especially designed to allow women who are barred from attending soccer matches because of the kingdom’s strict public gender segregation to watch games. The planned stadium was supposed to open in 2014. It also comes as the kingdom is drafting a national sports plan – for men only.

March/30/2012

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