MOSCOW (AP) — When Gianni Infantino is in the orbit of Vladimir Putin, the head of world soccer cannot stop beaming. Particularly when he’s juggling a ball in the Kremlin or sharing screen time with Putin as they watched the World Cup.
[ MORE: Transfer rumor roundup: Pogba to Barca? Madrid wants Neymar ]
Two years after his election, FIFA’s president gives the impression of a man who can’t believe the elevated circles of power he is allowed to mix in.
“We are a team,” Infantino told Putin ahead of the World Cup. “Together we will show to the world what we can do.”
The eagerness of the soccer bureaucrat to portray himself as an equal to the head the world’s third-biggest military superpower is not concealed. Surely Putin, as the former KGB spy, spots the obsequiousness a mile off?
“We all fell in love with Russia,” Infantino declared at a round-table gathering with Putin last week. “This is a new image of Russia that we now have.”
It is what Human Rights Watch calls “sportswashing.” Using a major sports event to cleanse the image of a nation and gloss over wrongdoing.
[ MORE: Belgium tops England to finish third at World Cup ]
Has the whole world really fallen in love with Russia?
— Ukrainians whose territory was annexed by Russia in 2014;
— Families of the 298 people blown out of the sky when a surface-to-air missile, which international investigators traced to Russia , hit a Malaysian Airlines flight in 2014;
— Those poisoned by the nerve agent Novichok this year on the streets of England in an attack blamed on Russia. (More than 25 countries expelled Russian diplomats as punishment);
— Countries who say Russia meddled in their elections (Twelve Russian military intelligence officers were indicted on Friday over hacking in the 2016 U.S. election);
— Migrant workers who suffered human rights abuses at World Cup stadium sites and the families of the 21 people who died;
— Athletes cheated out of medals at Olympic Games by Russians who took part in a state-sponsored doping scheme.
It’s a long charge sheet, which Russia naturally denies and dismisses as Western propaganda. Given the weight of allegations, The Associated Press asked Infantino at an event intended to celebrate the World Cup how comfortable he is seeking such a close alliance with Putin.
[ MORE: Chelsea reveal new manager Sarri, midfielder Jorginho ]
“There are many injustices in the world,” Infantino responded at the briefing.
Cooperation with a government is necessary for the smooth-running of a sports event. But just where should a sport governing body draw moral red lines over the extent it burnishes a head of state with praise?
“There are many things in the world not working as citizens in the world would like to work,” Infantino said. “There are many things we would like to change in the world, There are many things we are not happy that happen in the world. Not in one country. Not in one region. Not in one area but in the entire world. We have all to try to work, to do, to speak, try to make things change for the good wherever we can.”
The message from Infantino was conflicted. While claiming that at the World Cup “we are focused on football,” Infantino also wants to be seen to be harnessing the power of the game to bring people together when usual diplomatic channels break down.
“That is the basis to solve some of these issues,” Infantino said, still responding the litany of allegations against the Russian state. “If football and the World Cup can contribute to open channels, to open some discussions to help those who have to take important decisions for our world, to at least start to speak to each other and to realize there are people human beings living everywhere in the world, then I think we have done already something. We have given already a contribution. That is what football is about.”
Infantino is casting FIFA as an organization with a pseudo-political role. The next World Cup is in Qatar, which remains subject to a diplomatic boycott by the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain — a potential major stumbling block to movement in the region in 2022.
[ MORE: FIFA may still expand 2022 World Cup in Qatar ]
“Maybe we could bring those who are having difficulties communicating with each other to start dialogue,” Infantino said. “Maybe football can open up a door to communication between neighbors here.”
Infantino’s path to the FIFA presidency to succeed Sepp Blatter was only opened up after his former boss at European soccer’s governing body UEFA, Michel Platini, was taken out by a financial misconduct scandal. Now Infantino is now portraying himself a political mediator. Yet the Swiss-Italian lawyer and his FIFA cohorts insist Putin’s actions away from soccer don’t concern them.
The same man Infantino was joking with in the Kremlin, in a well-edited video of keepy-ups with the ball, still resists demands from the families of victims of the downed Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 to accept responsibility. The FIFA delegation that went to the Kremlin last week should have conducted more due diligence, according to the lawyer representing victims’ families.
“Review the archives for the many, many photos, videos and intercepted telecommunications which have been recovered documenting the Russian Army’s provocative action with Russian Buk (missile),” Jerry Skinner said. “Do your primary document research and catch up to those demanding Russian accountability.”
FIFA did at least publicly acknowledge concerns about Ramzan Kadyrov , the strongman Chechen leader accused of human rights abuses including torture, anti-LGBT attacks and the killings of political opponents. Egypt was allowed by FIFA to be based in Grozny and star striker Mohamed Salah was soon dragged into photo-ops with Kadyrov. That facilitated Kadyrov to “launder his reputation on the world stage,” said Minky Worden, director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch.
Since Infantino believes football should have a diplomatic role — as a conduit to opening up dialogue — activists want him to use that influence.
“If FIFA operations have been responsible for worker deaths, for wage cheating and exploitation, for giving as a platform to a serious human rights abuser then you can use that leverage to seek redress,” Worden said in a telephone interview.
Infantino told Putin he feels “like a child in a toy shop” and has called it the “best World Cup ever.” The FIFA leader has to be careful not to appear willing to give Putin a free-pass and gloss over misdeeds the Russian state has been found to be complicit for.
“The World Cup has certainly been the best World Cup for Ramzan Kadyrov and Vladimir Putin,” Worden said. “But certainly not on the basis of human rights.”