Safety fears grow over Cup venue
FIFA, world soccer's governing body, have stepped up their scrutiny of Lebanon as a World Cup qualifying venue - where Hongkong have been drawn to play - after recent unrest in the capital Beirut.
The Lebanese Football Association are due to stage the first round of the five-nation Asia Group D competition in Beirut from May 7-15 involving Hongkong, Bahrain, India, South Korea and the host country Lebanon.
But a FIFA spokesman said last night that an inspection committee would be ready to return to Beirut at the end of the month if trouble continued and put the safety of the players in jeopardy.
Speaking from FIFA headquarters in Zurich, press officer Andreas Herren said: ''We are monitoring it very closely through our competitions department and are planning to send extra people to the tournament who know the situation in the country.
''In early December the organising committee for the World Cup debated a number of issues revolving around the next final competition.
''One of the decisions reached was that Lebanon would be allowed to stage one of the Asian qualifying rounds in Group D after being banned for several years from holding international competitions on account of the military conflict there.'' Herren added that a team of FIFA experts visited Beirut in November to check on facilities and security and were quite satisfied with their findings.
''The inspection produced a positive report and the committee, therefore, accepted the recommendation.
''At the moment there are no plans to go over all our books again unless something serious happened and the situation changed fundamentally.
''But we are keeping a very close watch and plan to check things with Lebanon at the end of March. If there is any concern we would not hesitate to send our people back to have another look.'' The five teams will play each other once in Beirut and once in the second qualifying competition in Seoul from June 5-13. The top team qualifies for the next phase.
When the six Asian groups were selected, the countries had a series of meetings to decide which two in each group would host a qualifying round. The Hongkong FA were unable to offer the territory as a venue because of the $850 million redevelopment of thenational stadium.
Lebanon and South Korea were chosen - but religious conflict flared again over the weekend when a civilian was seriously wounded during an inter-Shiite clash between the pro-Iranian Hezbollah movement and the Syrian-backed Amal in Beirut's southern suburbs.
The secretary of the Hongkong FA, Vincent Yuen, said the recent flare-up in Beirut had put Hongkong officials on their guard.
''We have not really thought about the dangers because FIFA have been handling it but, of course, we are not completely satisfied with the situation,'' said Yuen.
''If we feel there may be a risk in going to Beirut we would not hesitate in approaching FIFA to express our concern but I'm sure they are monitoring the situation.
''We will agree with whatever FIFA say. If they think it is too dangerous they may change the venue or postpone the tournament.
''I think from now on we have to pay more attention to the situation over there.''