DOHA, Qatar, Nov 19 – Two weeks after FIFA urged the 32 teams at the World Cup to “focus on the football”, Gianni Infantino veered off-script on Saturday.
Nothing was off limits as the most powerful man in football vented his frustration in a 1hr 1min tirade that encompassed 3,000 years of history, the evils of colonialism, childhood bullying and freckles.
The build-up to the World Cup in Qatar has been dominated by years of controversy focusing on the host nation’s treatment of migrant workers and record on human rights.
But on Saturday, FIFA President Infantino forcefully pushed back against the opprobrium, insisting much of the criticism was misplaced and unfair.
“Today I have strong feelings. 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,” Infantino said in his opening remarks.
“I feel this, all this, because what I’ve been seeing and what I’ve been told, since I don’t read, otherwise I would be depressed, I think.”
– ‘One-sided moral lesson’ –
Infantino then linked criticism of Qatar’s treatment of migrant workers to his own experiences as the son of Italian immigrants to Switzerland.
“What I’ve seen brings me back to my personal story. I am a son of migrant workers. My parents were working very, very hard in difficult situations.
“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 against 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. What do you do then? You try to engage, make friends. Don’t start accusing, fighting, insulting, you start engaging.
“This is what we should be doing.”
Infantino contrasted Qatar’s recruitment of foreign workers to European attitudes towards immigration, citing the deaths of an estimated 25,000 people trying to enter Europe across the Mediterranean since 2014.
“We have been taught many lessons from Europeans and the Western world. I am a European and for what we have been doing for 3,000 years around the world, we should be apologising for the next 3,000 years before giving moral lessons,” Infantino said.
“If Europe really care about the destiny of these people, they can create legal channels – like Qatar did – where a number of these workers can come to Europe to work. Give them a future, some hope.
“This one-sided moral lesson is just hypocrisy…I don’t want to give you any lessons of life, but what is going on here is profoundly, profoundly unjust.”
– ‘Everyone is welcome’ –
Infantino later defended Qatar and the World Cup on the issue of LGBTQ rights, insisting that everyone would be welcome at the tournament regardless of sexual orientation.
Qatar has come under sustained fire over LGBTQ rights in the weeks before the tournament.
Former Qatari international and World Cup ambassador Khalid Salman sparked outrage earlier this month after calling homosexuality “damage in the mind” in an interview with German television.
“I’ve been speaking about this topic with the highest leadership, they can confirm that I can confirm that everyone is welcome,” Infantino said.
“If you’re a person that says the opposite, well it’s not the opinion of the country, or FIFA. Everyone that comes to Qatar is welcome.”
Infantino also dismissed suggestions that FIFA had “lost control” of its own tournament after the 11th hour decision on Friday to ban beer sales at World Cup stadium venues.
“If this is the biggest issue we have for the World Cup then I will resign immediately and go to the beach to relax,” Infantino said.
“I feel 200 percent in control of this World Cup, absolutely. Every decision is taken in partnership with the Qatari government.”