In a speech riddled with crass false equivalences on the eve of the World Cup, Gianni Infantino had a message for critics of this tournament.
“Don’t criticise Qatar. Don’t criticise the players” the Fifa president said. “Criticise me, because I am responsible for everything.” OK, Gianni; here goes. There is no shortage of material.
Criticise Gianni for the treatment, looking more risible by that day, of supporters who have travelled to Qatar to watch the World Cup.
Those staying at the Qetaifan Island “Fan Village” are paying $175 a night to stay in tents with two single beds, one table and an electric fan to mitigate the heat. So appalled were some upon arrival that they told the BBC they were leaving immediately.
Criticise Gianni for the U-turn over the beer ban just days before kick-off. While restrictions on drinking alcohol in and around the stadiums is no great surprise or injustice in a conservative Muslim country, the issue is that fans were told – and sold – one thing in the months leading up to the tournament and then forced to live with something different.
Again, it suggests that those who have spent considerable money on attending this World Cup are an afterthought.
Criticise Gianni for the fan zones, where supporters are encouraged to congregate to watch matches in temperatures exceeding 30C but where shaded areas are reported to be minimal.
“It is definitely hot, but there are enough areas where there is a shadow and we have enough refreshing beverages so I do not see a problem,” said Gerdine Lindhout, Fifa’s head of experiential marketing and promotion. “People have to use their logical minds.”
Fortunately, Qatar’s organising committee has already done its best to ensure fan sentiment is positive. It has paid for a hand-picked group of supporters from each participating nation to attend the tournament, so long as they agree to contracts stipulating that they won’t bad-mouth the World Cup.
Criticise Gianni for the absurd timing of this tournament, which has given players virtually no rest before it starts. Sadio Mane and Karim Benzema have joined the list of injury absentees in the last few days, while Fifpro, the international footballers’ union, said last week there was “a really high risk” of players suffering injuries at this World Cup.
And definitely criticise Gianni for the obscenely flippant remarks with which he opened his speech. “Today I feel gay. Today I feel disabled. Today I feel a migrant worker,” said Infantino, whose Fifa salary is in excess of $3m. “I feel like them because I know what it feels like to be discriminated.”
Equating being picked on at school for having red hair, as Infantino did, with the inhumane treatment suffered by some migrant workers and the LGBTQ+ community in Qatar is not just idiotic but also dangerous because it trivialises real problems.
Of course, Infantino is happy to play the martyr. “Here I am; you can crucify me,” he said. Last week he urged Russia and Ukraine to pause fighting during the World Cup.
He can get away with such grandiosity because he is untouchable; he is about to be re-elected unopposed; Fifa’s sponsors have mostly remained loyal even through scandals, while fears of player-led protests over human rights concerns in Qatar look unlikely to materialise.
Now that the football is underway, attention will turn to the sport and much of the debate about Qatar will be drowned out by cheers. Hopefully the tournament passes safely and without incident for supporters, especially those from the LGBTQ+ community. If it doesn’t, we will all know who to criticise.