IT started with FIFA president Gianni Infantino’s well meaning, but naïve, riposte to the increasing criticism of World Cup hosts Qatar.

Infantino was determined to criticise those who dared to criticise the Arab nation and its culture by referencing a series of personal and historical anecdotes for more than an hour.

The diminutive, at least in size, Middle Eastern nation has been scrutinised for its treatment of migrant workers and its attitude to LBGTQ+ rights. Moreover, the pre-tournament decision by the Qatar authorities to ban the sale of alcohol at all stadiums also raised concerns on bigger, more significant issues.

Infantino said: “For what we Europeans have been doing around the world in the last 3,000 years we should be apologising for the next 3,000 years before starting to give moral lessons to people.

“How many of these European or Western business companies who earn millions from Qatar, billions, how many of them have addressed migrant workers’ rights with the authorities?

“None of them, because if you change the legislation it means less profit. But we did, and FIFA generates much less than any of these companies from Qatar.”

Infantino continued: “Today I feel Qatari. Today I feel Arabic. Today I feel African. Today I feel gay. Today I feel disabled. Today I feel (like) a migrant worker.

“Of course I am not Qatari, I am not an Arab, I am not African, I am not gay, I am not disabled.

“But I feel like it, because I know what it means to be discriminated, to be bullied, as a foreigner in a foreign country.

“As a child I was bullied – because I had red hair and freckles, plus I was Italian, so imagine.

“What do you do then? You try to engage, make friends.

“Don’t start accusing, fighting, insulting, you start engaging.

“And this is what we should be doing.”

He also moved to excuse the alcohol ban, referencing stadiums in Scotland, France and Spain.

Infantino said: “I think it’s never too late to change. Maybe we will have to do other changes in between on other topics, I don’t know.

“But when it comes to the security of people – you spoke about LGBT – everyone’s security is guaranteed, from the highest level of the country. This is the guarantee that we gave and we stick to it.”

Qatar’s ‘kafala system’ is a set of labour laws which allow Qatari individuals or businesses to confiscate workers’ passports and stop them leaving the country. It opens the possibility of exploitation for the promise of regular wages amidst hostile conditions.

Indeed, investigation by rights group Equidem uncovered wage disparity, discrimination, and other abuses and a general lack of accountability by employers.

Reports of migrant worker deaths range from a few dozen to several thousand in the 12 years of preparation for the tournament.

Qatar’s Sharia law means same-sex sexual activity has punishments ranging from seven years in jail to death by stoning.

Infantino’s impassioned but clumsy speech was met with widespread criticism globally. It added to the long-held view that Qatar succeeded in their bid 12 years ago under suspicious and nefarious circumstances.

Amnesty International put out a statement in response to the Infantino speech.

“In brushing aside legitimate human rights concerns, Gianni Infantino is dismissing the enormous price paid by migrant workers to make this flagship tournament possible, as well as FIFA’s responsibility for it,” the statement read.

“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.”

Sky Sports reporter Melissa Reddy was one to respond with indignation.

“You do not know what it feels like to be gay, you do not know what it feels like to be disabled, you do not know what it feels like to be African,” Reddy said.

“You cannot conflate being discriminated against because of red hair and freckles to what any of the groups you’ve just referenced have experienced.

“You can’t negate their experience by saying you feel what they feel. It is an absolutely astounding address from the FIFA president, and it’s probably even more astounding that he is being re-elected unopposed after being allowed to say stuff like this.

“He’s also taken the fact that Qatar recruits from the poorest countries in the world, millions who have nothing, and bring them to do what human rights groups call modern slavery. He’s saying that’s OK because they get paid more than they do at home.

“This is just misleading, disrespectful, offensive. It’s just damaging to the cause to trying to get better rights, better conditions for these workers, to try to improve the human rights situation here.

“He also speaks about hypocrisy. I do not think Infantino is the man to speak about hypocrisy, I do not think ‘what-about-ism’ is the correct route for a FIFA president to try to enforce change.”

Gurchaten Sandhu, of the Geneva-based International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association, also took issue with Infantino’s defense of Qatar.

“You don’t feel gay. You are gay,” Sandhu said.

Meanwhile, disgraced former FIFA president Sepp Blatter recently stated it was a “mistake” to award Qatar the rights in the first place.

It seemed to be an innocuous statement more intent on self-preservation which has become his modus operandi of shifting blame elsewhere. “It [Qatar] is too small of a country,” Blatter told Swiss newspaper Tages Anzeiger. “Football and the World Cup are too big for it.”

Then there is the absurdity of a World Cup, originally destined for a scorching summer tournament, being shifted to winter and the massive disruption to football leagues around the world. Blatter refused to acknowledge the country’s poor human rights record or treatment of the LGBTQ+ community when explaining why Qatar was a bad choice.

In November 2013, he told delegates at the Asian Football Confederation: “It is not fair when the international media, and especially European media, are taking up the focus of an Arab country here in this, Asia, by attacking, attacking, criticizing this country. We are defending it.”

And soon after, “We have met with the ITUC [International Trades Union Confederation] and the ILO [International Labour Organisation] and now is the time to calm down.”

In June 2014, he told the BBC: “There is a sort of storm against FIFA relating to the Qatar World Cup. Sadly there’s a great deal of discrimination and racism.”

In 2016, he alleged pressure from external political forces influenced the vote, in an attempt to preserve his image.

Meanwhile, several participating countries were united in their quest to make a symbolic and demonstrative statement against Qatar’s gender laws, despite Blatter’s omission.

The governing bodies of England, Wales, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland said they had written to FIFA in September informing them about the “One Love” armband, but did not receive a response.

Football Association chief executive Mark Bullingham says FIFA threatened “unlimited” sanctions against players who wore the One Love armband during matches at the World Cup in Qatar.

“We had a lot of meetings with FIFA over that period and on Saturday before the game we felt we’d reached an understanding where we would wear it,” added Bullingham. “We hadn’t got permission but we would face a fine for it.

“Unfortunately then, on the day of the game, they gave us 10 minutes’ notice – two hours before we were due to go to the game.

“They came here with five officials and they ran us through a scenario where, at a minimum, anyone wearing the armband would be booked and face disciplinary action on top of that.”

“As national federations we can’t put our players in a position where they could face sporting sanctions, including bookings,” the seven soccer federations said in a joint statement. In response to FIFA’s threat, Germany’s players covered their mouths for the team photo before their match against Japan on Tuesday in protest.

No disciplinary action was taken, though the German football federation said it was going to investigate whether FIFA’s threat to sanction players for wearing the armband is legal.

The England players opted against further protest before their match against the United States, although the Wembley arch was lit up in rainbow colours.

“The FA will continue to show our support to the LGBTQ+ community and all other communities during this tournament and long beyond, starting with lighting up the Wembley Stadium arch in rainbow colours for Friday night’s match with the USA,” the FA said in a statement.

Pride in Football, network of LGBT+ fan groups in the UK, criticised the FA for not doing enough.

“Although appreciative of the gesture, responding with something miles away from Qatar is more a way of getting brownie points than creating change,” the group wrote on Twitter.

“Has this been done as a result of seeing countries like Germany actually react to the breakdown of the armband?”

The global charity “Ludo Aequitas”, promoting equality through sport, has its own solution to the controversy.

The captains of each team could have come together in a unifying gesture for sport and social values, during the opening ceremony.

“Do The Ludo”, a behavioural stance of solidarity, tolerance and understanding would have sent a global message on human rights. It should have been something discussed by FIFA and Qatari officials well and truly before the tournament commenced.

The Ludo Aequitas “Ludo Creed” should also have been on all the screens at the stadiums at the beginning of the opening ceremony, translated into different languages.

Hopefully, as the charity gains momentum, it will be featured at future sporting events as an opportunity to eradicate discrimination against race, colour, age, sex, gender, religion, disability and social status.


Image via ESPN

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