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WTO joins FIFA in African project despite Qatar controversy

GENEVA (AP) — The head of the World Trade Organization said Tuesday the benefits of working with FIFA to create more jobs in Africa outweighed concerns about the controversies around Qatar hosting soccer’s World Cup this year.

Qatar has faced fierce scrutiny and criticism for its treatment of migrant workers who were brought in over the past decade to build tens of billions of dollars' worth of construction projects ahead of the tournament, which starts in November.

“Yes, maybe there have been controversies and we are not shying away from that,” WTO director-general Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said when hosting FIFA president Gianni Infantino at an event in Geneva.

The former Nigeria finance minister noted “no one has shut down the World Cup and said it’s not going to take place.”

“I think the balance of thinking is if we are going to have the whole world going to this place for this World Cup, no matter the controversies, and we have a chance to make this whole thing benefit poor countries through trade, we will take it,” Okonjo-Iweala said.

She acknowledged Qatar was a “very active” member of the WTO, before concluding the upside of its FIFA partnership was worth the risk.

The WTO and FIFA hope cotton-producing countries in west Africa can get a bigger share of trade and jobs in manufacturing for the global soccer industry.

Infantino and Okonjo-Iweala put the sport’s annual economic value at $268 billion — similar to the GDP of a top-50 nation like New Zealand.

“Football is a big mover in terms of all kinds of goods and services,” the WTO leader said. “How do we harness the trade part of it?”

She cited the “Cotton-4” group of nations — founded as Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad and Mali — which could benefit from the partnership. None of the national teams in those countries ever qualified for a men’s World Cup.

“It could create so many jobs, so much income, lift up women, lift up young people,” Okonjo-Iweala said.

Infantino said one of FIFA’s goals was to “bring a lot of hope but also a lot of work and opportunities to many people around the world.”

He was asked by the event moderator about Qatar being a controversial choice as World Cup host.

“Thanks to the spotlight of football as well many things have changed in Qatar,” Infantino said, referencing workers’ and human rights.

A campaign launched last week by eight of the 13 European teams who qualified to play in Qatar aims to pressure FIFA into letting their captains wear armbands with a multi-colored, heart-shaped logo. It’s part of the Dutch project “One Love” that supports diversity and LGBT+ rights. Homosexual acts are illegal in Qatar, but the host nation has promised all visiting fans will be made welcome.

“Things have still to change but a process has started,” Infantino said about Qatar. “I am happy to take all the criticism of everyone for everything, doesn’t matter, as long we can have a little, little concrete and real positive impact.”

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