DOHA, Qatar — FIFA president Gianni Infantino launched an extraordinary, scathing defense of Qatar and the 2022 World Cup at a Saturday news conference, during which he targeted the “hypocrisy” of Western critics and used whataboutism to defend the host country’s record on human rights.
Infantino, speaking for the first time in months on the eve of the tournament, addressed the most frequent criticism of this World Cup by comparing the current state of workers’ rights, LGBTQ rights and women’s rights in Qatar to those in 20th century Europe; by pleading that “reform and change takes time”; and by arguing in an impassioned hour-long monologue that FIFA has helped accelerate progress in Qatar.
Speaking directly to Europe, he implicitly cited colonialism and centuries of other atrocities, and argued that, “for what we Europeans have been doing in the last 3,000 years around the world, we should be apologizing for the next 3,000 years before starting to give moral lessons to people.”
He argued that Qatar deserved credit for opening its doors to migrants while many wealthy Western countries often close their doors. “If you all really care about the destiny of these people, of these young people, Europe could also do as Qatar did, create some channels, legal channels, so that at least a number of these workers could come to Europe,” Infantino said. “Give them some work, give them some future, give them some hope.”
Infantino, who has been living in Qatar for much of this year, also called out Western countries and companies who deal with and profit from Qatar, and asked: “How many of them have addressed migrant workers’ rights? … None of them.”
He then claimed that FIFA has. Infantino has previously acknowledged that millions of migrants have come to Qatar and worked in a legal framework, the kafala system, that’s been likened to “modern slavery.” He has argued, and did again on Saturday, that FIFA helped push for the abolishment of kafala and other reforms that have been enacted. He mentioned Qatar’s workers' support and insurance fund, which the government says has paid out multiple hundreds of millions of dollars.
Rights groups largely acknowledge that the FIFA-adjacent spotlight has indeed helped incite change. They have also said, however, that the implementation of reforms has been lax or faulty, and that abusive practices — unpaid wages, excessive hours, poor conditions, illegal recruitment fees — are still rampant.
Representatives of those same groups reacted incredulously to Infantino’s comments. They were “an insult to the thousands of hard-working women and men who made the World Cup possible,” said Mustafa Qadri, the founder of rights organization Equidem.
They “were as crass as they were clumsy, and suggest that the FIFA president is getting his talking points direct from the Qatari authorities,” said Nick McGeehan, a British investigator and worker rights advocate at FairSquare.
“This is so infuriating,” Rothna Begum, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, wrote in an email to Yahoo Sports.
Throughout a one-hour-and-40-minute news conference, Infantino repeatedly seemed to justify Qatar’s failings by citing others’ failings — a tactic that rights advocates have denounced. For example, he appeared to criticize the media for covering the suffering of migrant workers and LGBTQ people, but not covering the suffering of disabled people. “The whataboutery,” Begum wrote, should not distract from FIFA’s responsibility for the abuses that occurred over 12 years to enable this World Cup.
In response to a question about women’s rights, Infantino pointed out that women did not have the right to vote in one canton of his nation, Switzerland, until 1990.
Speaking about homosexuality, which is criminalized in Qatar, he said that “these legislations exist in many countries in the world. These legislations existed in Switzerland when Switzerland organized the World Cup in 1954.”
Infantino, whose parents migrated from Italy to Switzerland, also appeared to equate the suffering of migrant workers in Qatar to what he and his family had experienced. He opened his monologue with an awkward string of statements: “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.”
He then reasoned that he knows “what it means to be discriminated, what it means to be bullied, as a foreigner in a foreign country.” He said he was bullied as a kid in Switzerland for his imperfect language skills, his red hair and his freckles.
Infantino claims 'everybody is welcome' in Qatar
Infantino also reiterated that “everyone,” regardless of “religion, race, sexual orientation, belief,” is “welcome” in Qatar despite local laws and lived experiences that might suggest otherwise.
Specifically addressing “the LGBT situation,” he said: “I have been speaking about this topic with the highest leadership of the country — several times, not just once. And they have confirmed that I can confirm that everybody is welcome.”
When asked how fans could trust those assurances after a separate assurance — that alcohol would be available at stadiums — was reversed two days before the tournament, Infantino defended the alcohol ban, “but when it comes to the security of people,” he said, “everyone's security is granted, from the highest level of the country. This is the guarantee that we gave, we give, and we stick to.”
Infantino’s “I feel gay” comment instantly drew criticism from LGBTQ people, who felt that Infantino wouldn’t be comfortable saying that in Qatar if he was, in fact, gay. (Infantino is straight.)
In response to that and other criticism, FIFA media relations director Bryan Swanson, the only other person on stage with Infantino, took the mic at the end of the news conference.
“I just wanted to say something and use this platform if I may,” Swanson said. “I've seen a lot of criticism of Gianni Infantino since I joined FIFA, in particular from the LGBTQI 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 that 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 about 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 organization. I have a number of gay colleagues. So sitting here, I'm 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. I just wanted to make that point.”