Human rights groups have moved quickly to condemn Gianni Infantino’s extraordinary defence of hosts World Cup hosts Qatar, accusing the FIFA president of “deflection and whataboutery" and warning that “history will not judge this moment kindly”.
On the eve of the tournament, Infantino accused the European countries of “hypocrisy” over criticism of Qatar’s treatment of migrant workers and anti-LGBTQ+ laws, and said the West could learn from the Arab state.
An estimated 6,500 migrant workers have died on construction projects related to the World Cup since Qatar was awarded the tournament in 2010, while same-sex relationships are banned in the country, which has left many fans feeling unwelcome at the finals.
Nicholas McGeehan, director of human rights research and advocacy group FairSquare, said: “Infantino’s comments were as crass as they were clumsy and suggest that the FIFA president is getting his talking points direct from the Qatari authorities. Deflection and whataboutery have always been at the core of Qatar’s PR efforts to defend its rank failures, and now they have the FIFA President doing their work for them.”
During an hour-long speech, Infantino claimed he could empathise with migrant workers because he was bullied at school for having “red hair and freckles”.
The CEO of Equidem, a firm specialising in human and labour rights, described his comments as “an insult” to workers and said history would judge Infantino’s speech poorly.
“History will not judge this moment kindly," said Equidem’s Mustafa Qadri. “Infantino’s speech was an insult to the thousands of hard working women and men who have made the World Cup possible.
“He had a perfect opportunity to acknowledge that thousands of women and men from the poorest countries came to the richest only to face deception, exploitation and discrimination.
“Every day workers are contacting Equidem about unpaid wages, abuse and being terrified about speaking out for fear of retaliation from employers. There is a solution here: Infantino should establish a comprehensive compensation fund and demand Qatar establish an independent migrant workers’ centre so workers have a safe space to raise complaints and get the support they need.”
Infantino revealed that FIFA wants to create a legacy fund from its revenues from the tournament— and will allow its critics, or anyone who wants, to contribute.
“And those who invest a certain amount will be part of a board that can decide where the money goes,” Infantino said.
Amnesty International also condemned Infantino’s comments, accusing him of trying to start a "culture war", but added that his announcement of a legacy fund for workers was “a glimmer of hope".
Amnesty’s head of economic and social justice Steve Cockburn, 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 $6 billion the organisation will make from this tournament and make sure this fund is used to compensate workers and their families directly.”