An hour into his own pin-drop monologue, delivered from the stage of the vast, tiered amphitheatre of Doha’s main media centre, Gianni Infantino rose unexpectedly in his seat and spread his arms in crucifixion pose, wrists cocked, head tilted tenderly to one side. “You can crucify me. I’m here for that. Don’t criticise anyone. Don’t criticise Qatar.” And in that moment it became clear what we were watching. Here he is: Football Jesus. Behold for He walks among us.
Does Football Jesus not bleed for you? Does He not accept medals from Vladimir Putin on your behalf? Like Actual Jesus, is He not (not literally) struck down (not actually struck down) by the stones (not real stones) of the unjust, the heretical, the human rights charities?
A little later Infantino briefly became Football Mandela (“Do we want to continue to divide? Do we want to spit on others because they look different?” asked the man who has promoted what is in effect a racially segregated society). But mainly he was Football Jesus. And what is really clear, the one thing nobody should doubt, is that Football Jesus had a message in Doha. And that message was … well, what exactly?
Infantino spoke for an hour and a half in total. At times the spectacle was so captivatingly grotesque you didn’t want to breathe or cough for fear of breaking the magic.
Because this speech was also Infantino’s moment. This was his Imagine, his I Have a Dream, his Earth Song, his Now We Move on to Liars. With this screed of whining imperial discontent, I declare this World Cup open.
Really, though, in between the pull quotes and the killer lines, Infantino’s performance was something far more disturbing. This was the sound of a man who seems not just tired and angry but oddly hollowed out, who has spent so long residing close to death and to corruption by others that it has begun to rot him from the inside like a dead fish.
The opening remarks will take the headlines. Striding to his podium with an air of grandiose faux humility, Infantino paused, let the silence gather, then shared his feelings. “Today I feel Qatari. Today I feel Arab. Today I feel African. Today I feel gay. Today I feel disabled. Today I feel [like] a migrant worker.”
It is tempting to marvel at the virtuosity here. Accused of betraying the rights of assorted minority groups, of promoting only the interests of the powerful, in the space of three short seconds Infantino wore gay face, he wore African face, he wore disabled face.
Most cynically, Fifa’s president dressed himself up in the clothes of a deceased migrant worker killed building that £4bn cash machine. Later on, explaining his struggle against prejudice as a white man in Switzerland, he brandished his own red hair and freckles like a magician triumphantly producing a rabbit from a bowler hat.
It was, it goes without saying, a wretched spectacle – not to mention myopic, tin-eared and oddly lost. Either side of which Infantino basically talked a lot of horse shit. There will be wider fact checks available on the many half-truths and misleading angles spouted here. Some stood out.
At one point Infantino seemed to be saying that Qatar offers hope and succour to the poor and desperate people of the world, whereas Europe closes its borders and refuses to help. There are a great many things wrong with the UK. But it is also a longstanding complaint that Qatar is profoundly opposed to helping asylum seekers and refugees. Last year Qatar took just 197 refugees despite having a war on its doorstep and being one of the world’s richest nations. Zambia took 75,000. The UK took 137,000. Infantino is not just dissembling here, he is simply wrong.
There was plenty more of this stuff. Infantino suggested his own trip to Iran had brought peace and tolerance to the nation. “If a few thousand women in Iran are happier because of me, then I will take every criticism,” he schmoozed, which will certainly come as interesting information to the women of embattled, brutally patriarchal Iran.
He boasted about Fifa’s new human rights strictures on World Cup bids. “So would Qatar be allowed to apply as a host now?” he was asked. “Yes of course because the World Cup is open to all,” Infantino bounced straight back.
At times like these you see his thin but dogged talent, the thing that has put him on that stage, the sense of a giant marzipan man oozing into whatever shape fits the moment, sliding under the door out of reach, altering the contours of his face – marzipan concern, marzipan defiance – as it turns from side to side.
He did make some legitimate points. Fifa’s basic argument is that things in Qatar are not perfect, but they are better than they were. And that nobody but Fifa has addressed these issues, which is true if you ignore everyone else who has been addressing these issues for years. But the World Cup has undoubtedly made some things happen.
He is also right that the cancellation of beer sales within the stadium complex is not such a huge issue in itself. The fat end of the wedge is, frankly, already upon us. Drinking beer is not a human right, not least in an Islamic country. If the hosts are uncomfortable, whenever that emerges, frankly it is hard to argue back.
Aside from all that, beneath the faux concern and the cod-statesman stuff, the base note of this extraordinary show was rage. Infantino is clearly furious with his critics, furious that this thing cannot be bent to his will. And by the end it had become hugely engrossing just to see someone so blind to his own contortions, so shameless, and quite clearly losing his grip on his own spectacular.
Infantino announced at one point that he feels “200% in control” of this World Cup, which sounds like the kind of thing someone might say just as their World Cup rears up and gallops off into a creak. Not least when that World Cup is already reeling from sponsor slap-down, shifting dates and constant noises off.
This is the most alarming part of Gianni’s song, the Infantino Monologues. For all the inanity and toxic spin, one fact remains. That person up there, Corporate Spartacus, with his gay-migrant-African call to arms, is actually in charge of this show, caretaker of this shared sporting jewel. The global game, always such a faithful reflection of the global times, has rarely looked so busted, so loose on its hinges, so out of control.