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Australia swerve rights issues to focus on World Cup opener

Australian players refused to enlarge on their comments about Qatar’s human rights record on Monday, saying they were fully focused on a daunting World Cup opener against defending champions France.

The Gulf state has come under intense scrutiny over its treatment of migrant workers, women and the LGBTQ community in the run-up to the tournament, which starts on November 20. 

The Socceroos released a video last month featuring 16 players, in which they spoke out against rights abuses in Qatar, although they acknowledged progress had been made.

“We have learned that the decision to host the World Cup in Qatar has resulted in the suffering and in the harm of countless of our fellow workers,” the players said in the message.

They added they fully support the rights of the LGBTQ community but in Qatar people are “not free to love the person that they choose”.

World Cup organisers hit back at the criticism of the Gulf state’s rights record, insisting that “no country is perfect”.

Australia’s Mitchell Duke, asked at a press conference on Monday what legacy he hoped the World Cup would leave in Qatar, said the players were now concentrating on the tournament.

“To be honest I think we timed things well with what was said,” the forward, who featured in the video, said at the team’s training base in Doha.

“We’ve done that purposely before we all came to the camp because our main priority now, once we turned up, was just to focus on the football side of things.”

The 31-year-old, who plays his club football in Japan, added: “So what we said in that video was covered, what should be heard, and now we’re just dealing with football to be honest and that’s not really spoken about now.

“We’ve got a certain job in hand here at the World Cup to represent Australia and do our job so that’s basically our main priority now.”

‘Not get starstruck’

Australia have not escaped from the group stage at a World Cup since the 2006 tournament in Germany, where they reached the last 16.

In Qatar their first match is against Didier Deschamps’ France side, who are seeking to become the first back-to-back winners of the tournament since Brazil in 1962.

Duke said the message from the coach, Graham Arnold, was to use their physicality against one of the most richly gifted teams in world football, whom they face on November 22.

“I feel like the Aussie mentality is to not back down,” he said. “We can beat anyone on our day… it doesn’t matter who they are. There are 11 players against 11 players and that’s the mentality I think we’ve got to have, not get starstruck.”

Duke said the team’s first priority was to get out of the group phase.

“We just focus on ourselves performance by performance and have performances that we don’t regret,” he added. “We give everything on the pitch and that’s all we can do.”

Defender Thomas Deng, 25, who also plays in Japan, said the players “dream of playing against these guys”.

“Watching the Champions League and the European leagues… you always wonder how it would be to come up against them and to have the opportunity now, I’m just excited to see what will happen.”

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