June 11, 2017

FIFA has waded into the escalating Gulf diplomatic crisis by removing a Qatari referee from a 2018 World Cup qualifier following a request from the United Arab Emirates.

The decision was taken due to the ''geopolitical situation'' in the region, FIFA told The Associated Press on Sunday, hours after its president, Gianni Infantino, was quoting as saying soccer's governing body should not ''interfere in geopolitics.''

Qatar, which is hosting the 2022 World Cup, was isolated earlier this week by four Gulf nations, including the UAE, who accuse it of funding terrorism.

FIFA's statues demand a firm stance against any ''political interference'' in soccer and countries are often suspended from the international game as a result, but the Zurich-based organization agreed with the UAE federation that the Qataris due to officiate over the game against Thailand in Bangkok on Tuesday should be replaced.

Instead, a referee from Singapore will take charge of the qualifier for next year's tournament in Russia. He will be assisted by a fellow Singaporean and two officials from Malaysia.

''We can confirm that FIFA has replaced the match officials originally appointed for the said game,'' FIFA said in a statement to the AP. ''The decision has been taken for sporting reasons and in view of the current geopolitical situation.''

In an interview with Swiss newspaper Le Matin published Sunday, Infantino expressed confidence that the regional rift would be resolved before Qatar hosts the Middle East's first World Cup in five years.

''The essential role of FIFA, as I understand it, is to deal with football and not to interfere in geopolitics,'' Infantino was quoted as saying.

Soccer bodies, including FIFA, will separate countries such as Armenia and Azerbaijan or Spain and Gibraltar in qualifying draws due to ongoing political disputes.

Infantino said he is maintaining regular contact with the ''highest authorities'' in Qatar and the 2022 tournament's organizing committee.

''We are indeed facing a diplomatic crisis,'' Infantino said. ''But on the other hand, I am confident that the region will return to a normalized situation. The World Cup is in 2022, in five years. Obviously, if football can make a small contribution, in any way ... I will not hesitate to offer my help.''

Qatar denies it backs extremist groups and says the allegations from its Gulf rivals are politically motivated and intended to tarnish the country's image.

But the blockade of Qatar has worsened throughout the week. Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE have prohibited Qatari flights from using their airspace. Additionally, Saudi Arabia sealed shut Qatar's only land border, impacting a significant source of food imports for the peninsula nation.

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Rob Harris is at www.twitter.com/RobHarris and www.facebook.com/RobHarrisReports

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