Gianni Infantino said he feels gay. That he feels like a woman. That he feels like a guest worker. He lectured Europeans for criticizing Qatar’s human rights record and defended the host nation’s last-minute decision to ban beer from World Cup stadiums.
The FIFA president ran an hour-long rant on the eve of the opening World Cup match, then spent about 45 minutes answering media questions about the actions of the Qatari government and a wide range of other topics.
“Today I feel Qatari,” Infantino said at the start of his first World Cup press conference on Saturday. “Today I feel Arab. Today I feel African. Today I feel gay. Today I feel disabled. Today I feel like a migrant worker.”
Infantino later fired back at a reporter who noticed he had left women out of his unusual statement.
“I feel like a woman,” the FIFA president replied.
Qatar has faced a lot of criticism since 2010, when it was chosen by FIFA to host the biggest football tournament in the world.
Migrant workers building Qatar’s World Cup stadiums often worked long hours in harsh conditions and were subjected to discrimination, wage theft and other abuses as their employers evaded responsibility, London-based rights group Equidem said in a 75-page report month was published.
Infantino defended the country’s immigration policy and praised the government for bringing migrants in to work.
“We in Europe are closing our borders and we are practically not allowing any worker from those countries, who are clearly earning very low incomes, to work legally in our countries,” Infantino said. “If Europe really cared about the fate of these people, these young people, then Europe could do as Qatar did.
“But give them some work. Give them some future. Give them some hope. But this moral teaching, one-sided, is just hypocrisy.”
Reforms implemented, concerns remain
Qatar is ruled by a hereditary emir who has absolute authority over all government decisions and follows an ultra-conservative form of Islam known as Wahhabism. In recent years, Qatar has been transformed after a natural gas boom in the 1990s, but it has been under pressure from within to stay true to its Islamic heritage and Bedouin roots.
Under heavy international scrutiny, Qatar has implemented a number of labor reforms in recent years that have been praised by Equidem and other rights groups. But advocates say abuse is still widespread and workers have few options for redress.
However, Infantino continued to attack the Qatari government to redirect criticism towards the West.
“What we Europeans have done for the past 3,000 years, we have to excuse for the next 3,000 years before we start teaching people moral lessons,” said Infantino, who moved from Switzerland last year to live in Doha ahead of the World Cup.
Human rights not a ‘culture war’
Responding to his remarks, human rights group Amnesty International said Infantino “sets aside legitimate human rights criticism” by decrying the price migrant workers paid to make the tournament possible and FIFA’s responsibility for it.
“Demands for equality, dignity and compensation cannot be treated as some kind of culture war – they are universal human rights that FIFA has pledged to respect in its own statutes,” said Steve Cockburn, Amnesty’s chief economic and social justice.
A televised address by the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, on October 25 marked a turning point in the country’s approach to criticism. He claimed it was “subjected to an unprecedented campaign that no host nation has ever faced”.
Since then, government ministers and senior World Cup organizers have dismissed some European criticism as racism, calling for a compensation fund to be created for the families of migrant workers as a publicity stunt.
‘We seem to forget’
Qatar has often been criticized for laws that criminalize homosexuality, limit some of women’s freedoms and do not offer citizenship to migrants.
“How many gays have been persecuted in Europe?” Infantino echoed previous comments that European countries had similar laws until recent generations. “Sorry, it was a process. We seem to forget.”
In one region of Switzerland, women were not given the right to vote until the 1990s, he said.
He also chided European and North American countries for not opening their borders to welcome soccer-playing girls and women who helped FIFA and Qatar leave Afghanistan last year.
Albania was the only country to act, he said.
Seven of Europe’s 13 teams at the World Cup said their captains will wear an anti-discrimination armband in matches that violate a FIFA rule as they take part in a Dutch campaign dubbed “One Love”.
FIFA has declined to comment publicly on the matter, or on the European football federations’ urging of FIFA to support a compensation fund for the families of migrant workers.