Controversial Qatar in town

On Friday, the national team of Qatar, contentious future hosts of the World Cup, take on Scotland at Easter Road. Tony Dawber was one of 3,000 people to witness Qatar’s game with Northern Ireland in Crewe last week – along with no few protestors.

Boycott threats, protest plans and possible political demos.

You wouldn’t think it was a fairly meaningless end-of-the-season friendly international.

But that’s what’s dominating the headlines ahead of Scotland’s kickaround against Qatar at Hibernian’s Easter Road on Friday.

And it’s all because of their opponents.

Since FIFA’s top brass were blitzed by the corruption scandal, everyone from Amnesty International to the Tartan Army are seeing the clash as a chance to voice displeasure and disgust at the decision to award Qatar the 2022 World Cup.

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N Ireland v Qatar/Tony Dawber

And while Easter Road may see a more widespread protest storm, the first flames were visible during Qatar’s friendly against Northern Ireland in the unlikely setting of Crewe Alexandra FC on Sunday.

Chosen because the home club were amenable, Crewe was convenient for Northern Ireland and the Qataris were based at the nearby St George’s Park training complex. A quiet Sunday in a Cheshire town may just have seen the spark that led to revolution.

OK, a few posters highlighting Qatar’s disgraceful record of migrant worker deaths during 2022 stadium construction plus a string of ribald chants by Northern Ireland’s boisterous following aimed at Blatter and FIFA in general were hardly the Storming of the Bastille, but it was a start.

And it all added to the surreal nature of a bizarre afternoon.

The game itself was forgettable, two average sides struggling with a bumpy pitch and a stiff breeze.

Northern Ireland deserved the lead they bagged moments after the break when Brentford’s Stuart Dallas lashed home a loose ball to grab his maiden international goal.

But Qatar livened up in the later stages and grabbed a sublime leveller ten minutes from time, a 20-yard curler from Karim Boudiaf that left former Manchester United keeper Roy Carroll grasping thin air.

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N Ireland v Qatar/Tony Dawber

‘Qatar have an enthusiasm for the game and an energy,’ said a magnanimous Northern Ireland boss Martin O’Neill.

‘I think there’s a bit of naivety in their play at times but they are competitive and they bring an athleticism to the game.

‘They look like a team who will continue to improve and they will give Scotland a good work-out.’

There was no roar when that splendid equaliser hit the net, though.

And that was because there was not a single Qatari supporter in the ground, the 3,022 crowd divided equally between curious locals and noisy Northern Irish fans.

Indeed, their only visible support came when their maroon-and-white national flag was sheepishly unfurled alongside that of Northern Ireland during the playing of the national anthems.

As for their new coach José Daniel Carreño, whose flamboyant mop of hair and sharp suit gave the impression of being the singer of an unlikely Qatari Eurovision entry, he marked his first game in charge by nipping outside for a celebratory cigarette with his interpreter.

The Uruguayan then skipped aboard the team coach without addressing the press, a wise move perhaps considering the storm that may await in Scotland.

Mohammed Muntari and Boudiaf had briefly shone for his side, but both were born elsewhere and naturalised by a policy of player importing which has hardly enhanced the tiny nation’s shrivelling popularity.

‘Personally I think it’s not a good thing,’ said O’Neill.

‘International football is the part of the game that’s least affected by finance and I think it should stay that way because if not it could lose its intensity.

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N Ireland v Qatar/Tony Dawber

‘It’s not for me to say how the game goes forward but we have to be careful or international teams could lose their identity.’

Yet even with the imports, five of whom were in the starting line up, Qatar showed little to suggest they will be a threat either to Scotland next week or, for that matter, when they host the party in 2022.

The faint breeze of revolution at Gresty Road may be whipped up at Easter Road and develop into an unstoppable hurricane that changes the global game forever.

But don’t expect it to sweep the maroon flag of Qatar to any summits.

Scotland-Qatar, Easter Road, Edinburgh. Friday June 5. 7.45pm.

 

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