Gianni Infantino took his seat in the cavernous media theatre and, slowly, shook his head. His expression was sombre, his voice was low.
‘Let’s hope to speak a little bit about football,’ FIFA’s President began.
You knew, instantly, this was not going to be an ordinary press conference. Infantino would have loved to “stick to football” and let’s not forget he sent a letter to all nations competing at the World Cup imploring them to do just that, to avoid speaking about the myriad off-field issues around Qatar.
FIFA president Gianni Infantino (pictured) lashed out at critics of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar
But Infantino, from his following statement, saw to it that football was the last thing on anyone’s mind. From thereon, he chicaned his way through the most contentious topics and left his audience dumbfounded, often gasping incredulously.
‘Today I have strong feelings,’ said Infantino. ’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. And I feel this, all this, because what I have seen and it brings me back to my personal story. I’m a son of migrant worker.
‘My parents were working very, very hard and in very, very difficult conditions – not in Qatar, in Switzerland. I remember as a child how migrant workers were treated when they looked for work and I remember what happened with their passports.’
And he was away. For the next 57 minutes, in an uninterrupted monologue, Infantino went on the charge. Intriguingly, he was watched throughout by two men, sat on the front row of the middle tier of an auditorium that would have dwarfed many West End theatres.
They were dressed in traditional Qatari attire; who they were is unclear but they carried the air of importance. The significance of them being there was added to by the fact they had gone by the time Infantino took questions.
‘Infantino’s comments were as crass as they were clumsy and suggest the FIFA president is getting his talking points direct from the Qatari authorities,’ said Nicholas McGeechan, Director of Fair Square, a human rights research group.
They were absolute crass and clumsy, so let’s get back to it. There was an attack on the West from Infantino, who lives in Doha, accusing them of racism and insisting those in Europe who have criticised Qatar over their employment of migrant workers were on shaky foundations.
‘What is sad, in these last weeks, we have been seeing in some places a real lesson on morals, on double morals,’ Infantino thundered. ’I think what Europe has been doing for the last 3000 years, we should apologise for the next 3000 years for what we have done.
Infantino said that if Europe ‘really cared’ about the migrant workers they would do as Qatar did in creating ‘legal channels’ for them to come in
‘I do not have to defend Qatar. I am defending football and injustice. Who actually cares about these issues? FIFA does. Football does. The World Cup does. And, to be fair, Qatar does. This will be the best World Cup ever. When the ball starts rolling, that is what people want.’
When taking those words into account, be reminded that 15,000 migrant workers (monthly salary £220) lost their lives between 2011 and 2021 as the eight glitzy stadiums were constructed for the extravaganza that begins today with the hosts facing Ecuador.
‘Hundreds of thousands of workers from developing countries, they leave their own country and they help their families to survive,’ Infantino, who commands an annual wage of £3million, continued. ’They do it in a legal way. We in Europe, we close our borders.
Infantino also spoke about matters surrounding LGBTQ+ as well as migrant workers and critics
’We don’t allow practically any workers from these countries who are trying to come to work legally in our countries. We all know there are many illegal workers in our European countries, living in conditions that are not really the best.
’Those who reach Europe, or those who want to come, have to go through very difficult journeys. Only a few survive. So if you really care about the destiny of these people – these young people – Europe can do as Qatar did.
‘Create some channels, some legal channels, to increase the percentage of these workers to come to Europe. Give them some work. Give them some future.’
From migrant workers, he moved onto matters surrounding LGBTQ+; Infantino had earlier told a story of how, as the son of Italian migrants, he had experienced bullying through his childhood and been excluded due to his “ginger hair and freckles.”
Inclusivity, he stressed, was something important to him and too FIFA. But nobody has ever said FIFA was homophobic – the issue here was the concerns that those from the LGBTQ+ harboured about their safety in a country where homosexuality is illegal. Again Infantino waded in.
‘Everyone is welcome,’ he said. ’If you say the opposite, it is not the opinion of the country. Everyone who comes to Qatar is welcome, whatever their religion, race or sexuality. This was our requirement and the Qatari state sticks to that requirement.
’You will tell me “yeah but there are legislations where you can go to jail”; yes – these legislations exists in many countries around the world. These legislations existed in Switzerland when they organised the World Cup in 1954. These are processes.
’What do you want do? Stay at home and hammer and say how bad they are, these Arabs, these Muslims because it is not allowed to be publicly gay? Of course I believe it should be allowed. If you think you will achieve something by hammering and criticising, I tell you it will be the opposite.
‘If you provoke me, I react. And that is not good. Try to defend the right causes by engaging. That is the only thing I ask.’
Infantino wasn’t asking, though. He was preaching. Some points he made were credible but the vast majority of it left you incredulous, from his claim that FIFA’s relationship with Budweiser hasn’t been damaged to his idea that a World Cup could one day be staged in Iran.
‘Let the people enjoy the World Cup!’ Infantino proclaimed. ‘We do not spit on the others because they look different or they feel different. Help us. Do not divide. We have a city that wants to welcome the world. Let us please celebrate.’
And, with that, he again focused everyone to focus on football. The irony, of course, was he had made it impossible.