FIFA president Gianni Infantino delivered an extraordinary speech on the eve of the World Cup, in which he accused the west of moral hypocrisy.
In what was supposed to be a 45-minute Q&A with the media in Doha before Sunday’s opening game, Infantino delivered a rambling monologue that lasted nearly an hour in which he steadfastly defended Qatar’s migrant workers policy and labelled those saying there were ‘paid fake fans’ in Qatar as racist.
The build-up to the World Cup has been overshadowed by the treatment of LGBTQ+ people and the deaths of migrant workers, but Infantino said critics were in no position “to give moral lessons to people”.
Infantino said: “Today I have strong feelings. Today I feel Qatari, I feel Arab, I feel African, I feel gay, I feel disabled, I feel a migrant worker.
“Of course I am not Qatari, I am not an Arab, I am not African, I am not gay, I am not disabled. But I feel like it, because I know what it means to be discriminated, to be bullied, as a foreigner in a foreign country. As a child I was bullied – because I had red hair and freckles, plus I was Italian so imagine. I went in my room and I cried
“I feel for the FIFA and Supreme Committee staff. They want to deliver here. I am proud to have this FIFA sign on my jacket. It will be the best World Cup ever. Qatar is ready.
“Hundreds of thousands women and men from developing countries who’d like to offer their services abroad in order to help and give a future to their families back home. Qatar is actually offering them this opportunity. They come here, earn 10 times more than what they earn in their home country.
“For what we Europeans have been doing around the world in the last 3,000 years we should be apologising for the next 3,000 years before starting to give moral lessons to people.
“How many of these European or Western business companies who earn millions from Qatar, billions, how many of them have addressed migrant workers’ rights with the authorities?
“None of them, because if you change the legislation it means less profit. But we did, and FIFA generates much less than any of these companies from Qatar.”
Infantino also responded to reports of fans being paid to support different nations at the World Cup.
“The world is divided enough, we are organising a World Cup, not a war,” he said. “We organise a World Cup where people who have many problems want to come and enjoy. Look at the city, it’s beautiful. People are happy to celebrate.
“They were happy when the teams come and they go to see them, and what do I read? These people don’t look English, they shouldn’t cheer for England because they look like Indians. What is that?
“Can somebody who looks like an Indian not cheer for England, Spain or Germany? You know what this is. This is racism, this is pure racism. We have to stop that because everyone in the world has the right to cheers for who they want.”
‘This World Cup underpins how dirty the game is’
Sky Sports News senior reporter Melissa Reddy in Qatar:
“What absurd, offensive, misleading thing did he not say? This is extraordinary and unlike anything I’ve ever heard before.
“You do not know what it feels like to be gay, Infantino, you do not know what it feels like to be disabled, you do not know what it feels like to be African and you cannot conflate being discriminated against because of red hair and freckles to any of the groups you’ve referenced have experienced. You cannot negate their experience by just saying you ‘feel’ what they feel.
“It is an absolutely astounding address from the FIFA president and it’s probably even more astounding that he is being re-elected unopposed after being able to say stuff like this. He’s also taken the fact that Qatar recruits from the poorest countries in the world, millions who have nothing and bring them to do what human rights groups call modern slavery, he’s saying that’s OK because they get paid more than they do at home.
“This is misleading, disrespectful, offensive, it’s damaging to the cause to try to get better rights, better conditions for these workers to try and improve the human rights situation here.
“He talks about the hypocrisy, I do not think Infantino is the man to speak about hypocrisy. I do not think whataboutism is the correct route for a FIFA president to try and enforce change.
“If we all get stuck on what’s happened before or what’s going on elsewhere and we have to stay silent because of that, we’ll never bring about any effective change. We’d all just never say anything ever because no country is untouched and untainted, but we’re here for the World Cup and on the eve of the tournament, this is what we are getting.
“He says it will be the best World Cup in history, I think this will be the World Cup that really underpins just how dirty the game is.”
Amnesty: FIFA must compensate workers and their families directly
Responding to Infantino’s comments, Steve Cockburn, Amnesty International’s head of economic and social justice, said: “In brushing aside legitimate human rights criticisms, Gianni Infantino is dismissing the enormous price paid by migrant workers to make his flagship tournament possible – as well as FIFA’s responsibility for it.
“Demands for equality, dignity and compensation cannot be treated as some sort of culture war – they are universal human rights that FIFA has committed to respect in its own statutes.
“If there is one tiny glimmer of hope, it is that Infantino announced that FIFA would establish a legacy fund after the World Cup. This cannot be mere window dressing, however.
“If FIFA is to salvage anything from this tournament, it must announce that it will invest a significant part of the $6bn the organisation will make from this tournament and make sure this fund is used to compensate workers and their families directly.”
‘Infantino spoke almost like Trump’
Sky Sports News chief reporter Kaveh Solhekol in Qatar:
“It was a very bizarre performance from Gianni Infantino. Some of the things he was saying were absolutely ridiculous and at times it seemed like he’d almost developed a Messiah complex. The problem FIFA presidents have is they fly around the world, meet a lot of head of states and after a while they start to think and act as if they are a head of state as well.
“I got the feeling today he was talking almost like he was Donald Trump. Some of the stuff he was coming out with was dividing and ruling, it almost seemed like he was trying to stoke tensions between Europe and the rest of the world.
“If people in that room, 400 journalists, if we had microphones we would have interrupted him during the speech to correct some of the mistruths he was coming up with. I’ve seen some extraordinary press conferences in my time and that was one of the most extraordinary I’ve seen.
“It’s insulting for a FIFA president on the eve of a World Cup to say he feels like a migrant worker when we know for a fact many of the migrant workers, who have built the stadiums and infrastructure, were getting paid as little as £1 an hour often to work and live in absolutely terrible conditions. I could not believe what I was hearing.
“It’s insulting to compare getting bullied at school to living and working in the conditions some of the migrant workers have had to live and work in in Qatar over the last 12 years.
“He started off by saying, ‘Today I feel gay’. That is insulting when he is in a country where being gay is against the law, it is criminalised and FIFA has decided to bring the World Cup here when they keep telling us football is for everybody.”
‘Football fans have to turn on FIFA’
The Times’ chief football writer Henry Winter on Sky News:
Have FIFA lost control of the World Cup after beer U-turn and Infantino’s comments? “Absolutely. I feel for the fans who want to go to the game and have a drink. There’s an extra logistical issue which the Qataris clearly haven’t thought through in that the fans will stay in the fan park where they can have a drink after 7pm and then they’re going to rush to the ground so there might be issues with them all getting in having arrived late.
“Infantino should go straight to the West End for the pantomime season with some of the stuff he is coming up with. He’s having a go at journalists from all around the world, we’re thick-skinned we can deal with that, but it’s offensive to football fans, the real fans who are descending on this great event in their tens of thousands and they are being treated like this.
“The football fans have to turn on FIFA in their numbers, turn on the sponsors and turn on the Qataris.”
‘FIFA is an inclusive organisation’
At the end of the press conference, FIFA’s director of media relations Bryan Swanson said: “I’ve seen a lot of criticism from Gianni Infantino since I’ve joined FIFA, in particular from the LGBTQ+ community. I am sitting here in a privileged position, on a global stage as a gay man here in Qatar.
“We have received assurances that everybody is welcome and I believe that everybody will be welcome in this World Cup.
“Just because Gianni Infantino is not gay does not mean he doesn’t care, he does care. You see the public side, I see the private side and we have spoken on a number of occasions about this. I thought long and hard whether to mention this in this news conference, but I do feel strongly about it.
“We care at FIFA about everyone, we are an inclusive organisation. I have a number of gay colleagues, so sitting here I am fully aware of the debate and I fully respect everyone’s right and everyone’s opinions to think differently, I get it. But I also know what we stand for and when he says that we are inclusive, he means it.”