DOHA, Qatar — Gianni Infantino said he feels gay. That he feels like a woman. That he feels like a migrant worker. He lectured Europeans for criticizing Qatar’s human rights record and defended the host country’s last-minute decision to ban beer from World Cup stadiums.
The FIFA president delivered a one-hour tirade on the eve of the World Cup’s opening match, and then spent about 45 minutes answering questions from media about the Qatari government’s actions and a wide range of other topics.
“Today I feel Qatari,” Infantino said Saturday at the start of his first news conference of the World Cup. “Today I feel Arab. Today I feel African. Today I feel gay. Today I feel disabled. Today I feel a migrant worker.”
Infantino later shot back at one reporter who noticed he left women out of his unusual declaration.
“I feel like a woman,” the FIFA president responded.
Qatar has faced a litany of criticism since 2010, when it was chosen by FIFA to host the biggest soccer tournament in the world.
Migrant laborers who built Qatar’s World Cup stadiums often worked long hours under harsh conditions and were subjected to discrimination, wage theft and other abuses as their employers evaded accountability, London-based rights group Equidem said in a 75-page report released this month.
Infantino defended the country’s immigration policy, and praised the government for bringing in migrants to work.
“We in Europe, we close our borders and we don’t allow practically any worker from those countries, who earn obviously very low income, to work legally in our countries,” Infantino said. “If Europe would really care about the destiny of these people, these young people, then Europe could also do as Qatar did.
“But give them some work. Give them some future. Give them some hope. But this moral-lesson giving, one-sided, it is just hypocrisy.”
Qatar is governed by a hereditary emir who has absolute say over all governmental decisions and follows an ultraconservative form of Islam known as Wahhabism. In recent years, Qatar has been transformed following a natural gas boom in the 1990s, but it has faced pressure from within to stay true to its Islamic heritage and Bedouin roots.
Under heavy international scrutiny, Qatar has enacted a number of labor reforms in recent years that have been praised by Equidem and other rights groups. But advocates say abuses are still widespread and that workers have few avenues for redress.
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Infantino, however, continued to hit the Qatari government’s talking points of turning criticism back onto the West.
“What we Europeans have been doing for the past 3,000 years we should be apologizing for the next 3,000 years before we start giving moral lessons to people,” said Infantino, who moved last year from Switzerland to live in Doha ahead of the World Cup.
In response to his comments, human rights group Amnesty International said Infantino was “brushing aside legitimate human rights criticisms” by dismissing the price paid by migrant workers to make the tournament possible and 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,” said Steve Cockburn, Amnesty’s head of economic and social justice.
A televised speech by Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, on Oct. 25 marked a turning point in the country’s approach to any criticism, claiming it had been “subjected to an unprecedented campaign that no host country has ever faced.”
Since then, government ministers and senior World Cup organizing staff have dismissed some European criticism as racism, and calls to create a compensation fund for the families of migrant workers as a publicity stunt.
What about Europe?
Qatar has often been criticized for laws that criminalize homosexuality, limit some freedoms for women and do not offer citizenship to migrants.
“How many gay people were prosecuted in Europe?” Infantino said, repeating previous comments that European countries had similar laws until recent generations. “Sorry, it was a process. We seem to forget.”
He reminded that in one region of Switzerland, women got the right to vote only in the 1990s.
He also chided European and North American countries who he said did not open their borders to welcome soccer-playing girls and women that FIFA and Qatar worked to help leave Afghanistan last year.
Albania was the only country that stepped up, he said.
Seven of Europe’s 13 teams at the World Cup said their captains will wear an anti-discrimination armband in games in defiance of a FIFA rule, taking part in a Dutch campaign called “One Love.”
FIFA has declined to publicly comment significantly on that issue, or on the urging of European soccer federations for FIFA to support a compensation fund for the families of migrant workers.
The ripostes came Saturday.
FIFA now has its own armband designs, with more generic slogans, in partnership with various U.N. agencies. Armbands for the group games say: “FootballUnitesTheWorld,” “SaveThePlanet,” “ProtectChildren,” and “ShareTheMeal.”
At quarterfinal games, “NoDiscrimination” will be used.
Not good enough, the German soccer federation said a couple hours later, deciding to stay with the heart-shaped, multi-colored “One Love” armband logo.
FIFA also wants to create a legacy fund from its revenues tied to this year’s World Cup – and will let 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.
Legacy funds from previous World Cups went directly to soccer in the host nation – $100 million from FIFA to South Africa in 2010 and Brazil in 2014. Some money was spent on new vehicles for officials and even more opaque projects.
Two priorities this time for global projects are education and a “labor excellence hub” in partnership with the United Nations-backed International Labor Organization.
British media reports this week noted fans wearing England shirts and cheering outside the team hotel were people from India who lived and worked in Qatar.
It followed reports of Qatar’s project to pay expenses for about 1,500 fans from the 31 visiting teams to travel to the World Cup, sing in the opening ceremony on Sunday and stay to post positive social media content about the host country.
It fed a long-standing narrative that Qatar pays people to be sports fans.
“You know what this is? This is racism. This is pure racism,” Infantino said of the criticism about the England cheer squad. “Everyone in the world had a right to cheer for whom he wants.”
Infantino spoke while knowing he will be unopposed for re-election as FIFA president in March.
“Unfortunately for some of you,” he said to reporters Saturday, “it looks like I will be here for another four years.”