World Cup·Analysis

FIFA president slams World Cup critics for hypocrisy on human rights

​​​​​​​Gianni Infantino said he feels gay. That he feels like a woman. That he feels like a migrant worker. He lectured Europeans for criticizing Qatar's human rights record and defended the host country's last-minute decision to ban beer from World Cup stadiums.

Gianni Infantino says Europe has been as bad as Qatar 'for 3,000 years'

FIFA president Gianni Infantino, shown in this file photo, had a media availability on the eve of the World Cup's opening match, and spent about 45 minutes answering questions from media about the Qatari government's actions and a wide-range of other topics. (Robert Cianflone/Getty Images)

QATAR — The morning before the strangest, most controversial World Cup in modern memory kicks off Sunday, FIFA president Gianni Infantino took the stage in Qatar's palatial media centre and mounted a rambling, combative, thoroughly unconvincing defence of it.

"Today, I have very strong feelings," he said by way of alarming opening. "Today, I feel Qatari. Today, I feel Arab. Today, I feel African. Today, I feel gay. Today, I feel disabled. Today, I feel a migrant worker."

He then explained that he somehow felt he were all those things — for the record, he is none of them — because he is the son of poor Italians who went to Switzerland in search of a better life.

"I know what it feels to be discriminated," he said. "I was bullied because I had red hair."

Infantino, mercifully now totally bald, no longer faces the terrible spectre of intolerance toward gingers. He still managed to sound put upon, comparing the criticism of FIFA's allegedly corrupt selection of Qatar to the barbs that martyrs endure.

"I'm proud to have this FIFA sign on my jacket," he said, thumping the badge over his heart.

There were a hundred cameras and many times more journalists facing him. Judging from the immediate response to his speech on social media — where his false equivalencies were ill-received by actual sufferers — and the horrified looks between members of the media in the silent room, he didn't accomplish whatever he thought he might.

His own director of communications sat to his left, scrolling through his phone, registering the mounting global dismay in real time.

"It's sad that we cannot focus on football," Infantino said, throwing up his hands.

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The miserable-seeming president has pointedly dodged any responsibility for FIFA's 2010 decision to award the tournament to an oil kingdom with no soccer history and a hugely problematic record on human rights.

"I was not there," he said again.

Infantino continued to defend the indefensible, however, switching tactics to accuse his Western critics of hypocrisy. He said they are condemning the Qataris for holding the same discriminatory views that many Europeans once did, and some still do.

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"I think what we Europeans have been doing for 3,000 years around the world, we should be apologizing for the next 3,000 years before starting to give moral lessons to people," he said.

If there is truth in that, Qatar was still a bad choice to host from just about every possible perspective. There will be 120 special shuttle flights a day from Dubai so fans don't have to stay in here. Thousands of Welsh supporters have decided to attend an impromptu watch party in the Canary Islands rather than trek to expensive, half-built Doha. 

This sprawling glass-and-plaster city makes Toronto look finished. Some projects, such as the seven new stadiums and a renovated eighth, are ready and spectacular. Lineups are quick, and the new train runs very much on time.

But vast stretches of Qatar's capital are still under construction or already in need of repair, and there is no pretending anymore that the work will get done. The armies of migrant labourers have been reduced to platoons, toiling in huddled pockets with scarves wrapped around their faces, the better to fight off the maddening dust.

At this late stage, the Qataris have decided to stop keeping other promises, too. Infantino, accustomed to being the most powerful man in most rooms, now knows what real power looks like.

"I feel 200 per cent in control of this World Cup, absolutely," he said.

He is not.

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On Friday, organizers announced that beer won't be sold around stadiums before or after games, an about-face that took fans and long-time sponsor Budweiser equally by surprise. There are now concerns that more substantive pledges, such as ensuring the safety of LGBTQ fans in a country where homosexuality is a crime, might also be broken.

Infantino sought to dispel them. "They have confirmed that I can confirm that everyone is welcome," he said, because he first needed the Qataris to give him the nod.

By the end of his bizarre performance, which lasted an hour longer than the 45 minutes it was scheduled to take, he seemed resigned to poor receptions all the way around.

"You can crucify me," he said, once more placing the crown of the persecuted on his own gleaming head. "I'm here for that. Let the people enjoy this World Cup. It comes once every four years. How many occasions do we have to unite the world?"

Far from the way Gianni Infantino had intended, he had done just that.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Chris Jones

Senior Contributor

Chris Jones is a journalist and screenwriter who began his career covering baseball and boxing for the National Post. He later joined Esquire magazine, where he won two National Magazine Awards for his feature writing. His work has also appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times Magazine, ESPN The Magazine (RIP), and WIRED, and he is the author of the book, The Eye Test: A Case for Human Creativity in the Age of Analytics. Follow him on Twitter at @EnswellJones

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