Gianni Infantino’s masterclass in whataboutery strikes all the wrong notes on eve of Qatar World Cup

Gianni Infantino’s masterclass in whataboutery strikes all the wrong notes on eve of Qatar World Cup

Gianni Infantino wants football to be the only talking point in Qatar but the irony is that even the most engaging 90 minutes of the World Cup will struggle to top the extraordinary drama of the FIFA president’s hour-and-a-half press conference on the eve of the tournament.

In a giant amphitheatre in the bowels of Doha’s main media centre, Infantino launched a rambling and defiant series of ‘opening remarks’ lasting an hour, covering a range of topics from European immigration policy to being bullied as a child for his freckles.

The theme of his monologue was a staunch defence of World Cup hosts Qatar, who have faced criticism for their treatment of migrant workers and anti-LGBT laws, and an attack on what he described as European “hypocrisy".

“We are told to make many lessons from Europeans, from the western world," said the Swiss administrator.

“I’m European. I think for what we Europeans have been doing for 3,000 years around the world, we should be apologising for the next 3,000 years before starting to give moral lessons to people.”

The hypocrisy, though, was all Infantino’s.

The FIFA president wrote to all competing nations last week to request they “now focus on football", but it was not until 55 minutes into his politics-heavy speech that he finally turned to the tournament itself.

It was a masterclass in whataboutery and false equivalents, full of remarkable claims and one-liners.

In one comment for the ages, Infantino suggested he could empathise with migrant workers -- an estimated 6,500 of whom have died on infrastructure projects relating to the World Cup -- because he was bullied at school for having red hair and freckles.

“I feel like them because I know what it feels like to be discriminated against, to be bullied, as a foreigner in a foreign country,” he said. “As a child, at school, I was bullied because I had red hair and freckles.”

He added that the West could learn from Qatar’s treatment of migrant workers, which has been widely condemned by human rights groups.

Infantino, who at one point appeared to gloat at being re-elected -- unopposed -- for a third term as FIFA president, also attempted to offer reassurances to the LGBT community by insisting the Muslim country was in a “process” of changing, comparable to Europe in the middle of the last century.

“Yes, these [anti-LGBT] legislations exist,” he said. “They exist in many countries in the world. These legislation existed in Switzerland when they organised the World Cup in 1954.

“Like for the workers, these are processes. So what do you want to do about it? Do you want to stay at home and hammer and criticise, say how bad they are, these Arabs or these Muslims because it’s not allowed to be publicly gay? Of course I believe it should be allowed but it’s a process.”

The press conference concluded with FIFA’s director of media relations, Bryan Swanson, who is gay, vouching for Infantino and the world governing body.

“You see the public side, I see the private side and we have spoken on a number of occasions about this,” Swanson said. “We care at FIFA about everyone. We are an inclusive organisation. I have a number of gay colleagues. I am fully aware of the debate.

“But I also know what we stand for. When he says we are inclusive, he means it.”

That is all very well, but the silence from the Qatari state on this issue remains deafening, while FIFA’s decision to ban alcohol from grounds 24 hours before the first game has raised concerns that assurances to the LGBTQ+ community could also be swiftly withdrawn by authorities.

Infantino appears stung at the coverage surrounding the Qatar World Cup (Getty Images)
Infantino appears stung at the coverage surrounding the Qatar World Cup (Getty Images)

At the heart of Infantino’s message was a plea for the focus to switch from criticism of Qatar to the football itself, neatly summing up FIFA’s communications strategy for the tournament.

“We want a moment where we don’t have to think about [difficult questions]. We want to concentrate on something we love, on football,” he said.

To this end, Infantino simultaneously attempted to paint FIFA as an organisation powerless to influence the laws of “sovereign countries” and a potential broker of world peace.

“FIFA is not the United Nations, the world police, the Blue Helmets. The only weapon we have is this, the ball,” said the 52-year-old, picking up a ball in front of him.

Later, he revealed he had visited North Korea to attempt to persuade the secretive state to host a joint Women’s World Cup with neighbours South Korea -- “I was not successful, obviously,” -- and suggested holding a tournament in Iran to help "change something" in the country which is currently riven by unrest.

Infantino was plainly positioning himself as peacemaker, a healer of divisions but his tone was surprisingly bitter, part Donald Trump, part David Brent, part Kendall Roy, the insecure and deluded son of a media mogul from TV series ‘Succession’.

Towards the end of his monologue, and before he took 30 minutes of questions from the 400 assembled journalists, he urged the media to “crucify me” and FIFA, but avoid criticism of players, coaches and the Qatari state.

The loose comparison to Christ felt apt and there was more than a whiff of Messiah Complex about Infantino’s message.

The tournament should be a crowning moment for Infantino and FIFA but he has clearly been stung by the coverage of Qatar.

His comments, though, will do little to assuage the concerns of human rights groups -- many of whom were quickly to condemn them -- or fans.

Just as in his speech ahead of the World Cup in Russia in 2018, Infantino -- who has never relinquished the ‘Medal of Friendship’ given to him by Vladimir Putin -- promised that this would be the best World Cup in history.

His comments in Moscow have aged poorly and history, you suspect, may come to judge his latest remarks in a similar light.