Today I have very strong feelings. Today I feel Qatari. Today I feel Arab. Today I feel African. Today I feel gay. Today I feel disabled. Today I feel a migrant worker. I feel like them because I know what it feels like to be discriminated, to be bullied as a foreigner in a country. At school I was bullied because I had red hair and freckles. I was bullied, plus I was Italian, so imagine. I didn’t speak good German. What do you do then? You lock yourself down in your room, you cry and then you try to make some friends. You try to engage … You don’t start accusing or fighting, you start engaging. This is what we should be doing.”
Infantino’s opening remarks set the tone for his unexpectedly lengthy address. They are personalised and speak to his key theme, that of hypocrisy and that the way to effect change is not through confrontation but “engagement”. The metaphor, comparing being bullied for having red hair to the experience of migrant workers who remain exploited in Qatar to this day, appears flippant, but is likely sincere. Infantino has also lumped together the experience of exploited workers and those of LGBTQ+ people whose sexuality is illegal in Qatar, with those of some Qataris themselves – especially those at the top of society – who feel they have been the subject of unfair criticism. This gives the impression of a relativist approach to a highly sensitive debate.
It’s not easy every day to read all these critics of decisions that were taken 10 years ago when none of us was there. Now everyone knows we have to make the best out of it and make the best World Cup ever. Doha is ready, Qatar is ready, it will be the best World Cup ever, of course.”
Infantino is correct to observe that there has been widespread personnel change at Fifa since the decision was taken to award Qatar the World Cup in 2010. According to research by Nick Harris of the Mail on Sunday, 10 of the 22-member Fifa executive committee which voted on the deal have since been banned for ethics violations while another four have either been indicted or convicted of criminal corruption. At the time of the vote, Infantino himself was not a Fifa employee, but secretary general of the European governing body, Uefa.
Let’s start with the migrant workers. We are told many many lessons from some Europeans, the western world. I am European. I actually am. I think for what we Europeans have been doing in the last 3,000 years, around the world, we should be apologising for the next 3,000 years before starting to give moral lessons to people.”
In the year 1,000 BC, the concept of Europe did not exist and those living within the geographical boundaries were emerging from the Bronze Age. But if you substitute 300 for 3,000 then many European countries were colonial powers, putting human beings into slavery and exploiting natural resources. An anti-slavery movement did not appear in the UK until the late 18th century. The question of whether, and to what extent, contemporary European societies are responsible for the past, and should perhaps also undertake restitution, remains an active debate. Again Infantino’s criticism speaks to a perceived hypocrisy.
I don’t have to defend Qatar, I’m defending football and injustice. We see here many government representatives coming to Qatar. They all come because a country which has just sand and pearls turns out to have something much more, it’s gas. If there was no gas nobody would care. Now they all come and they all want something and who is actually caring about the workers. Who? Fifa does, the World Cup does and to be fair to them Qatar does as well.”
Infantino is right to observe that western governments, including those of the UK and USA, have a dependency on Qatari natural gas and oil, especially during the current Ukraine war. These governments, however, have not spoken out to criticise the World Cup, instead it has been a coalition of unions and NGOs as well as journalists and, in some cases, football authorities and players. These groups have been critical of Fifa and Qatar’s “caring” for workers.
Hundreds of thousands of workers from developing countries come to Qatar and earn many times more [than at home] and help families to survive. They do it in a legal way. We in Europe close our borders. Those who reach Europe or who want to go to Europe have to go through a very difficult journey and survive. If the EU really cared about the destiny of these people, then EU could also do as Qatar did to create some legal channels where at least a percentage of these workers could come to EU … give them some work, give them some future.”
Criticism of European treatment of migrants from outside the bloc is widespread and often comes from the same people who criticise the Qatar World Cup. However the European Commission claims that 21.6m people, or 4.2% of the total population, are third party nationals. In the UK, the 2021 census showed that 10m people living in England and Wales had been born outside the country – 16.8% of the total population.
I wonder why nobody recognises the progress that has been made since 2016 [when Infantino became Fifa president]? The kafala system was abolished, minimum wages were introduced, heat protections were put in place. ILO, unions acknowledged this, but media don’t, or some don’t.”
Moving from “nobody” to “some” suggests Infantino is aware his claim won’t stick. Media have generally reported on the progress or otherwise of reforms in Qatar, especially through the research of those on the ground, including the International Labour Organization and Amnesty International as well as individual journalists.
The only way of obtaining results is by engaging, seeking dialogue, not by hammering, insulting. When your child does something bad at school and you tell him he’s an idiot he’s useless and you put him in his room what do you think his response is? If you talk to him say let’s work together you will have better grades, he will recognise that and he will be better. I don’t want to give you any lessons of life I just want you to realise that what is going on here is profoundly unjust.”
Different styles of parenting remain in practice. Again, the segue from his first point to his claim of profound injustice seems ambitious.
Many organisations have recognised that workers’ rights standards are similar here to those in western Europe, the standards are similar on safety. Let’s see what happens in the next 10 years.”
This seems a grand claim. Amnesty, in their last update before the World Cup, says forced labour continues “unabated” in Qatar, particularly among security and domestic workers. Pay is regularly withheld from workers, while thousands are still working unsafely, Amnesty say. Building and Woodworkers International, who have been on the ground in Qatar since 2016, say safety standards on World Cup sites have been found to be broadly comparable with western Europe, but they were not replicated in the industry more widely.
People [in Qatar] are happy and want to cheer for the teams arriving, and what do I read: ‘These people don’t look English so they should not cheer for English because they look like Indians’. I mean what is that? Can someone who looks Indian not cheer for England or for Spain or for Germany? You know what this is: this is racism. This is pure racism. They have difficult lives, everyone has difficult lives, we want to have a moment where we don’t have to think about this.”
Claims that south Asians cheering the arrival of England in Qatar were “fake fans” were inaccurate. The accusations did, however, follow the revelation that Qatar had been paying people to be enthusiastic supporters during the tournament. Furthermore, the claim that someone “who looks Indian” could not support England is different altogether. Infantino may also have been more revealing than intended when imagining an escape from this.
[On the banning of beer at stadiums] Every decision taken in this World Cup is joint decision between Qatar and Fifa. There will be eight to 10 fan zones, over 200 places where you can buy alcohol anyway, I think personally if for three hours a day you cannot drink a beer you will survive. Maybe it’s a big thing because it’s a Muslim country, I don’t know. We tried until the end to see if it was still possible. It’s one thing having the plans and designs in place, then you look to see the flows of people, going to different matches, we have four matches on the same day so have to make sure people can go in and go out. That is why we had to take the decision about the beer.”
Infantino contradicts widely held views that Budweiser’s beer stands were withdrawn at the request of Qatari authorities. He may be correct, but it was certainly the case that the sale of beer at the stadiums was not only considered possible but actually guaranteed by Fifa as little as two months ago. A spokesperson told the AFP in September that alcoholic beer would be sold “within the stadium perimeter prior to kick-off and after the final whistle.” This is no longer the case. However some people will not have to wait three hours for a drink, with VIP boxes still serving alcohol. The World Cup’s “most luxurious” hospitality offer, the Pearl Lounge, will offer a six-course meal, welcome drinks, champagne, cocktails a dedicated sommelier and “guest appearances” for $34,300.
If you want to criticise, come to me. Here I am, you can crucify me, I am here for that. Don’t criticise Qatar, don’t criticise the players, don’t criticise anyone, criticise Fifa, criticise me because I am responsible for everything. How many occasions do we have to unite the world? Do we want to continue to spit on others because they look different or they feel different? We defend human rights. We do it our way. We obtain results. It’s a step-by-step process, help us in doing more. Don’t divide, don’t split.”
Infantino’s final remarks neatly encapsulate the whole speech: personally felt, lyrical and combining very different messages in one apparent argument. How many critics of the Qatar World Cup are “spitting” on others because “they look different”? How many “results” have actually been achieved? And is “don’t criticise Qatar” a plea or a demand?