/ 12 November 2022

Don’t be fooled by Infantino’s fantasies

Gettyimages 1437800214
Fifa president Gianni Infantino. (Photo by Masashi Hara - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

I am trying to obey Gianni Infantino’s instruction to “focus on the football”. I really am. But it’s hard, because Infantino’s instruction has forced me to focus on his idiocy.

In case you missed it, the Fifa boss wrote a truly inane letter this week, urging the World Cup 2022 participating teams and the whole world to try to forget about Qatar’s appalling human rights record over the next few weeks. 

“We know football does not live in a vacuum and we are equally aware that there are many challenges and difficulties of a political nature all around the world,” said Infantino. “But please do not allow football to be dragged into every ideological or political battle that exists.”

Interesting here is Infantino’s implication that homosexuality is an “ideology”, and that the brutal persecution of homosexuality is just another ideology of equivalent validity. He also seems to think there is yet another cult-like ideology out there whose followers are weirdly upset that thousands of migrant workers have died under neo-feudal labour conditions in Qatar World Cup construction projects. 

By contrast, the Qatari authorities are of a very different ideological persuasion. They believe one has to sacrifice the blood of lowly foreigners to deliver world-class facilities on time and on spec.

As for Infantino’s personal ideology, well, it is very simple: he has never met a rich and powerful back that he hasn’t wanted to scratch. That is the defining ideology of Fifa’s machine: one shared by Sepp Blatter and Michel Platini and all their fellow greaseballs, even though they can’t stand each other. And that ideology is the reason we find ourselves watching the World Cup in December in a desert that stinks of money and suffering.

If Infantino has a point at all, it’s about our consistency – or lack thereof. The global media didn’t make much of a hullabaloo about Vladimir Putin’s spectacular history of autocratic violence in the build-up the 2018 World Cup in Russia after his annexation of Crimea and the state-sponsored assassination of Russian critics of his regime.

What about the previous two host nations, Brazil and South Africa? Neither country has much to shout about when it comes to human rights. Both are marred by extreme economic inequality and police violence. They are both genuine democracies, in which labour rights and queer rights are protected in theory. But does a democracy absolve a state that kills and abuses its own people through its passive and corrupt neglect of their conditions?

At least the 2010 World Cup seemed to crystallise a sense of progress in South Africa. It came at the end of a decade of growth and stability, in which jobs and hopes were multiplying, even if inequality wasn’t shrinking.

At the time, hosting the tournament seemed like a potent worthwhile projection of soft power. It would announce our arrival as a charismatic, open, ambitious country getting to grips with its deep problems.

With hindsight, 2010 seems like a diversionary indulgence; the money would have been better spent on hospitals and schools. “Philip” came and went, and all that remains of his spirit is some fabulous arenas that are only filled up once or twice a year.

What will remain for Qatar in years to come? Will this World Cup plant a seed of change in the way workers and queer people are treated by the emirate, or even its bigger neighbours? Maybe. But the likelier outcome is that Qatar gets better at packaging and camouflaging its abuses.

Infantino might be right in his implication that football doesn’t change the real world of politics as much as we want it to. But that is no excuse for selling the game’s soul.