DOHA, Qatar — The president of world soccer’s governing body on Saturday sought to blunt mounting concerns about the World Cup in Qatar with a strident defense of both the host country’s reputation and FIFA’s authority over its showpiece championship. But in pushing back against criticism of the event, particularly from Europe, the president, Gianni Infantino, seemed to revel in redirecting much of their anger toward himself.
In an extraordinary hourlong soliloquy, Infantino attacked Western critics of Qatar, Western companies who do business in the country and human rights groups and news media organizations who have highlighted the cause of migrant workers for what he labeled “moral lesson-giving” and “hypocrisy.” He appeared to liken his own experience as a redheaded child of immigrants to Switzerland to the plight of gays in the Middle East, and defended the laws and customs of the host country.
“You want to criticize someone, come to me,” Infantino said. “Criticize me. Here I am. Crucify me,” he added, performatively rising in his seat and extending his arms out wide.
“Don’t criticize Qatar,” he continued. “Don’t criticize the players. Don’t criticize anyone. Criticize FIFA, criticize me, if you want. Because I’m responsible for everything.”
In meandering remarks tinged by scorn and false equivalencies, Infantino also sought to reassure gay fans and others that they would be welcome and safe in the tiny Gulf state; pushed back against growing evidence that Qatar, and not FIFA, was in control of major decisions related to the tournament; and defended the last-minute decision by local organizers on Friday to ban the sale of beer at the tournament’s eight stadiums.
“I think personally, if for three hours a day you cannot drink a beer, you will survive,” Infantino said.
But he also spent a significant portion of his address defending Qatar’s treatment of migrant laborers, the workers hired from some of the poorest corners of the planet to rebuild the desert state in a decade-long buildup to the first Arab World Cup. Thousands of workers have died in that period, according to human rights groups — Qatar has repeatedly disputed those claims — after working long hours in intense heat and other harsh conditions.
Infantino branded such criticism as “hypocrisy” and “moral lesson-giving” from a part of the world that should remember its own history. At one point, he even drew an equivalence between Qatar’s treatment of migrant workers and other endangered groups like gays and women with the long are of western history.
“I think for what we Europeans have been doing around the world for the last 3,000 years, we should be apologizing for the next 3,000 years, before starting to give moral lessons,” Infantino said.