British police officers deployed in Qatar for the World Cup will act as “cultural interpreters” between fans and local law enforcement, says Chief Constable Mark Roberts.
Roberts, the national lead on football policing, said British police are not there to tell fans how to behave.
“The focus is to try and prevent unfortunate misunderstandings where fans inadvertently cause offence,” he said.
The World Cup starts on 20 November.
Those “unfortunate misunderstandings” could stem from fans drinking alcohol, taking shirts off, waving flags, gathering in large numbers and other stereotypes that come with football fan culture.
The UK police delegation includes a team of 15 engagement officers, who will act as a “buffer” between supporters and Qatari law enforcement.
“We’re really keen that the British officers who go are a buffer and cultural interpreter so that we can have the first conversation with our fans before anyone else is deployed,” added Roberts.
“Their primary focus is to liaise with the supporters and the police forces just to say ‘look we’re not saying you’re wrong, but it’s causing offence so you might want to moderate your behaviour before anyone else has to intervene’.”
Around 3,000 to 4,000 England fans are expected to travel to Qatar for the group stages, with numbers set to increase should Gareth Southgate’s side reach the knockout stages.
An estimated 2,000 to 3,000 Wales fans also expected to fly out to the tournament, which concludes on 18 December.
“We’re not there to tell people how to behave, we don’t have powers, we’re not there to enforce local laws,” Roberts said.
“What we are there to do is have a conversation with supporters. We’re not going to lecture the fans on their behaviour – the advice would be to be a good guest.
“Our officers are there and if we do think there’s any problems we’ll look to intervene at a lower level and make sure that everyone stays safe.
A “significant” number of UK police officers will be on the ground acting as spotters to gather information to feed back to the Qatari commanders and act as community officers to support fans.
Turkey will send more than 3,000 riot police to Qatar as part of the security operation for the tournament. There will also be 100 special operations police sent from Turkey to Qatar, along with 50 bomb specialists and 80 sniffer dogs and riot dogs.
Last month Pakistan’s cabinet approved a draft agreement allowing the government to offer troops for security at the tournament. It did not say how many personnel would be sent, and neither country has said that a final agreement has been reached.
“There may be perceptions on the part of the Qatari police or the supporting Turkish police, or any of the other agencies, about what supporters are doing,” added Roberts.
“Just because people are noisy, bouncing up and down and chanting in a different language does not mean they’re being aggressive.”
Statistics provided by the police show there were three arrests among more than 5,000 England fans who travelled to Russia for the 2018 World Cup, 15 arrests four years earlier in Brazil where more than 9,000 fans travelled, and seven arrests from more than 14,000 fans at South Africa in 2010.
Roberts said: “You can see from the stats of previous World Cups, when people have to go to that effort and expense to get there, generally fans are going to go, watch the games and enjoy them.”
Many fans ‘priced out’ of World Cup
The Fifa event will be taking place in a Muslim country in the Middle East for the first time, and the consumption of alcohol is prohibited in Islam.
Fans will only be permitted to drink in the designated fan areas, one of which is a fan park which can hold up to 40,000 people and will show matches on big screens.
The other is a paid ticket event with DJ’s which may not attract fans in numbers as the cheapest tickets are said to start from £75.
Ashley Brown from the Football Supporters Association (FSA) said many fans have been “priced out” of the World Cup with concerns also around the lack of accommodation available to supporters.
“There’s a combination of reasons why people are being deterred,” Brown said.
“For a lot of people Qatar doesn’t sound like an exciting place to go, it’s not a typical holiday destination, lack of alcohol availability, cost of getting there, cost when you’re there, it’s put a lot of people off.”
The World Cup is expected to attract more than one million visitors, but by March Qatar only had 30,000 hotel rooms, 80% of which had already been booked by Fifa for football teams, officials, and sponsors.
Organisers are offering shared rooms in empty apartments, villas, fan villages and traditional-style tents in the desert with two cruise ships being converted into floating hotels that will be moored at Doha’s port.
Some fans are even opting to travel in from neighbouring Emirates country Dubai.
Another point of contention for travelling fans has been the fact that homosexuality is illegal in Qatar and many gay fans have opted to boycott the tournament.
“It’s very sad,” said Brown. “Three Lions Pride who represent that community as travelling England fans – I don’t think any are going.
“They don’t feel safe, they don’t feel comfortable and they don’t feel reassured and that is incredibly disappointing that Fifa can put a tournament in a country that won’t welcome those people.”
Fans have also been encouraged by the chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, Alicia Kearns, to leave their personal phones at home and take burner phones instead to Qatar. This comes amid fears that apps you have to download in Qatar are being used to hack into people’s phones.
“We heard the same for Russia and I’m not aware of any problems that were had in Russia,” said Brown.
“I’ve been to Qatar twice, I’ve used my own phone, I’ve not had any issues.”