Israeli football fans will be welcome in Qatar should their team qualify for the 2022 World Cup, or so the Gulf state said on Monday.
Hassan al-Thawadi, the leader of the country’s World Cup organizing committee, was pointedly asked by a New York Times reporter: "Should Israel qualify, would the team and its fans be welcome?"
Al-Thawadi replied, "Everyone is welcome. It’s a simple answer: everybody is welcome."
More than 1.2 million soccer fans from all over the world are expected to pour into the tiny country in what many fear will be a huge culture clash for a Muslim country.
But Mr. al-Thawadi said drinking alcohol would tolerated, as long as it was not in public.
He said, "We’ve always said it very clearly: alcohol will be allowed. But it won’t be allowed in public spaces. It’ll be allowed in certain designated areas, for example, but you won’t be allowed to walk the street drinking alcohol."
British-educated al-Thawadi also sought to allay fears that gay people might not be welcome, given the strong condemnation in parts of the Arab world of homosexuality.
He added: "It’s a simple thing. Everyone is welcome to Qatar. What we ask is that when people come, just to respect – we’re a relatively conservative nation. Public display of affection is something that’s not part of our culture. So all we ask is that every fan who comes in, and every fan is welcome, is we ask that people respect that."
He predicted that the passion for football which exists in the region would see fans rise above any political differences between Qatar and its neighbors.
“We’re football crazy," he said. "I mean the Middle East, the Arab world, is football crazy, plain and simple. You go to any corner, whether it’s in Qatar, whether it’s in Saudi, whether it’s in Morocco, and start speaking football, and you will find a very, very deep cauldron of passion and knowledge."
The last time Israel competed in a World Cup was in 1970 in Mexico, when they failed to get past the group stage.