DOHA, Qatar (AP) – Gianni Infantino said he feels gay. That he feels like a woman. That he feels like a migrant worker. He chastised the 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 an hour-long tirade on the eve of the opening match of the World Cup and then spent about 45 minutes answering questions from the media about the actions of the Qatari government and a variety of other issues.
“Today I feel like a Qatari,” said Infantino on Saturday at the beginning of his first World Cup press conference. “Today I feel Arabic. Today I feel African. Today I feel gay. Today I feel handicapped. Today I feel like a migrant worker.”
Infantino later fired back at a reporter who noted that he had omitted women from his unusual statement.
“I feel like a woman,” replied the FIFA President.
Qatar has faced a litany of criticism since 2010, when it was chosen by FIFA to host the world’s biggest soccer tournament.
Migrant workers who built Qatar’s World Cup stadiums often worked long hours in harsh conditions and faced discrimination, wage theft and other abuses as their employers evaded accountability, London-based rights group Equidem said in a 75-page report that was released this month.
Infantino defended the country’s immigration policy and praised the government for putting migrants to work.
“We in Europe, we are closing our borders and we are allowing practically no worker from these countries, obviously earning a very low income, 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 what Qatar did.
“But give them some work. Give them a future. Give them some hope. But this one-sided moral teaching is just hypocrisy.”
Qatar is ruled by a hereditary emir who has full say in all government decisions and follows an ultra-conservative form of Islam known as Wahhabism. In recent years, Qatar has changed after a natural gas boom in the 1990s, but it has been pressured from within to remain true to its Islamic heritage and Bedouin roots.
Under close international scrutiny, Qatar has enacted a series of labor reforms in recent years that have been praised by Equidem and other rights groups. However, advocates say abuses are still widespread and workers have few avenues to redress.
However, Infantino continued to hit the talking points for the Qatari government to channel criticism back to the West.
“What we Europeans have done for the last 3,000 years, we should apologize for the next 3,000 years before we start giving moral lessons to people,” said Infantino, who moved to Doha from Switzerland ahead of the World Cup last year .
Responding to his comments, human rights group Amnesty International said Infantino “steered aside legitimate criticisms of human rights” by dismissing the price migrant workers paid to make the tournament possible and FIFA’s responsibility for it.
“Demands for equality, dignity and redress cannot be treated as some kind of culture clash – they are universal human rights that FIFA has committed to uphold in its own Statutes,” said Steve Cockburn, Amnesty’s director of economic and social justice .
THE PUSHBACK OF QATAR
A televised address by the Emir of QatarSheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, on October 25, marked a turning point in the country’s approach to any criticism, claiming that it had been “subjected to an unprecedented campaign that no host country had ever faced.”
Since then, government ministers and top World Cup organizers have dismissed some European criticism as racism and called for the establishment of a compensation fund for migrant workers’ families as a publicity stunt.
WHAT ABOUT EUROPE?
Qatar has often been criticized for laws that criminalize homosexuality, restrict some freedoms for women and do not offer citizenship to migrants.
“How many gay people have been prosecuted in Europe?” Infantino said, echoing previous comments, that European countries had similar laws until recently. “Sorry, that was a process. We seem to forget.”
He recalled that in one region of Switzerland, women only got the right to vote in the 1990s.
He also chastised European and North American countries that they say are not opening their borders to welcome soccer-playing girls and women who FIFA and Qatar helped leave Afghanistan last year.
Albania is the only country that has strengthened, he said.
Seven of the 13 European teams at the World Cup said their captains would wear an anti-discrimination armband in matches against a FIFA rule and take part in a Dutch campaign called ‘One Love’.
FIFA has declined to comment publicly on the issue or on European football associations’ urging for FIFA to support a compensation fund for migrant workers’ families.
The answers came on Saturday.
FIFA now have their own armband designs with more generic slogans in collaboration with various UN organizations. The wristbands for the group games read: “FootballUnitesTheWorld”, “SaveThePlanet”, “ProtectChildren” and “ShareTheMeal”.
For quarter-final matches, “NoDiscrimination” is used.
Not good enough, the German Football Association said a few hours later, deciding to stick with the heart-shaped, multicolored “One Love” bracelet logo.
FIFA also wants to set up a legacy fund from its proceeds from this year’s World Cup – and will let its critics, or anyone who wants to, contribute to it.
“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 flowed directly into football in the host country – $100 million from FIFA to South Africa in 2010 and Brazil in 2014. Some of the money was spent on new vehicles for officials and even more obscure 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 that fans wearing England shirts cheering outside the team hotel were Indians living and working in Qatar.
Reports followed of Qatar’s project to pay for some 1,500 fans of the 31 visiting teams to travel to the World Cup, sing at Sunday’s opening ceremony and stay to post positive social media content about the host country.
It fed a longstanding narrative that Qatar pays people to be sports fans.
“Do you know what that is? This is racism. That’s pure racism,” Infantino said of the criticism of the England squad. “Everyone in the world had the right to cheer for whoever they want.”
Infantino spoke despite knowing he would be running unopposed for re-election as FIFA President in March.
“Unfortunately for some of you it looks like I’ll be staying here for another four years,” he told reporters on Saturday.
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