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Qatar World Cup faces its latest cause for concern: Safety in midst of Persian Gulf turmoil

Lusail Stadium, one of eight venues for 2022 World Cup matches, is under construction in Doha. (Ali Haider/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)
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The wisdom of staging the 2022 World Cup in Qatar was thrust back into the spotlight over the past 10 days with separate decisions by the U.S. men’s national soccer team and a U.S. player on assignment with a Dutch club to cancel their plans to practice there.

Since the controversial awarding of the sport’s spectacle to the tiny Persian Gulf country nine years ago, FIFA has faced unbroken criticism for the tainted vote, for selecting a nation with a checkered human-rights record and for picking a part of the world where triple-digit summer heat prompted an unprecedented shift of the competition to winter months.

For the most part, those issues have shrouded safety concerns for the thousands of spectators and 32 teams visiting the region, and specifically a small peninsula sticking into the politically strategic gulf like a child’s thumb, bordered by Saudi Arabia and across the waters from Iran.

Turmoil erupted shortly after the new year dawned when a U.S. drone strike in Iraq killed Qasem Soleimani, the head of an elite Iranian military force. Iran retaliated with ballistic missiles, and the world held its breath.

Around that time, the U.S. national team was preparing to open a three-week training camp in Doha, Qatar, a broad departure from its usual winter get-together in Southern California. The purpose was to experience the facilities and weather in the next World Cup host country.

(It was perhaps presumptuous for a program that failed spectacularly to qualify for the previous World Cup, but Coach Gregg Berhalter and the federation are confident they’re back on track.)

Within hours of Soleimani’s killing — and subsequent U.S. government warnings to Americans in the region — the U.S. Soccer Federation called off the camp before players boarded flights to Qatar. On short notice, IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. — on the shores of a decidedly tranquil gulf — opened its arms.

Less than a week later, U.S. defender Sergiño Dest, who was not part of the MLS-heavy national team delegation, withdrew from a camp in Qatar conducted by his full-time employer, Dutch club Ajax. Amid tensions in the region, Dest, 19, “did not feel comfortable,” Ajax said in a written statement.

The Dutch top division, known as Eredivisie, is on winter break, and like many European clubs, Ajax headed to a warm-weather location for training and friendlies.

Dutch soccer’s most famous team said it “understood the request and honored it.”

Dest, a Dutch American who committed to the U.S. team in the fall, returned to Amsterdam to train with the junior squad. The first unit will resume league play next Sunday against Sparta Rotterdam.

The USSF said Dest did not consult with Berhalter or federation officials before requesting to leave Qatar; it was a matter between the player and his club. Earnie Stewart, the USSF’s sporting director, reached out to the young defender after the news of his departure reached the United States, a federation spokesman said.

Were Dest or the U.S. team in imminent danger in Doha, which is about the same distance from a conflict zone such as Baghdad as central Missouri is from Washington, D.C.? Not likely, though a national team of any kind represents the country at large and, had matters escalated, could have become a target. In both cases, precautionary measures were taken.

The USSF said it would reschedule, though because of a busy calendar, the earliest window is next January. By then, the Americans will have a better idea of their chances to qualify. Between September and November, they will play six of their 10 final-round qualifiers in a Concacaf tussle that will reward three of the six teams with automatic berths.

In scheduling the Qatar trip, the federation cited the benefits of visiting South Africa and Brazil before the 2010 and 2014 World Cups, respectively.

With a limited infrastructure until World Cup projects are completed, Qatar is a different case. Five of the eight stadiums, as well as many training facilities, are being built from scratch.

The U.S. team had been planning to use Aspire Academy, an elite training center frequented by visiting teams, and play two closed-door games.

As far as FIFA is concerned, it’s full steam ahead. The Club World Cup was held in Qatar last month (Liverpool was champion) and will return next winter.

Security concerns in the gulf region have ebbed and flowed since the beginning of time. Who knows what the world will look like 34 months from now.

Calls to relocate the World Cup because of irregularities in the voting (Qatar stunned the United States to win hosting rights) have been dismissed. The treatment — and deaths — of migrant workers erecting the stadiums have not moved FIFA, either.

The only thing that could derail FIFA’s grand plans is regional turmoil. And as recent events proved, that’s not completely out of the question.

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