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FIFA head rebuffs critics, says ‘I feel’ like gay people or migrants

In a news conference on Nov. 19, FIFA president Gianni Infantino said he felt gay, African, disabled, and other descriptors ahead of the World Cup. (Video: Reuters)

In a bizarre news conference the day before the World Cup is set to begin in Qatar, FIFA President Gianni Infantino dismissed concerns about Qatar’s human rights record, compared himself to marginalized people and took aim at critics of the country’s hosting of the tournament.

Responding to scrutiny of the treatment of migrants who are working on the World Cup and of LGBTQ people and women in Qatar, Infantino, who is Italian and Swiss, said he knew what it meant to be discriminated against because he was bullied at school as a child for having red hair and freckles.

“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,” Infantino told journalists in Doha.

In wide-ranging remarks, he appeared to cast questions about the treatment of migrant workers and discrimination against LGBTQ people as attempts to sow division in the world and to portray people concerned about those alleged human rights violations as wanting “to spit on others.”

At the same time, he pledged that FIFA would defend human rights and require Qatar to welcome all people to the World Cup, which runs until Dec. 18. Qatar is the first Arab country to host a World Cup.

A FIFA spokesperson said the organization had no additional comment.

Families of migrant workers who died in Qatar are waiting for answers

Since FIFA awarded the tournament to Qatar in 2010, criticism and protests from human rights advocates, players, workers and others have been steady. The sheikhdom has a large number of migrant workers, criminalizes homosexuality and restricts the rights of women.

Human rights organizations including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have estimated that the death toll of migrant workers building World Cup facilities is in the thousands, a number Qatar has disputed. Many of the workers are from South Asian and African countries. Meanwhile, fears about the safety of LGBTQ fans attending the tournament have mounted.

Qatari authorities have disputed some of the criticism.

In an Oct. 25 address, the country’s emir, Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, said Qatar “has been subjected to an unprecedented campaign that no host country has ever faced,” the Associated Press reported. He said claims against the country include “fabrications and double standards.”

On Saturday, Infantino accused Europeans who have criticized Qatar and FIFA’s decision to hold the World Cup there of hypocrisy.

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

He also said he was not defending Qatar but was “defending football.”

“You can crucify me. I’m here for that. Don’t criticize Qatar, don’t criticize the players,” he said. “Criticize FIFA, criticize me if you want because I’m responsible for everything, but let the people enjoy this World Cup.”

‘Very welcoming’

Some fans have said they plan to boycott the games, especially those in the LGBTQ community, because of Qatar’s laws on homosexuality. In May, Tamim said all would be welcome at the World Cup and said the country would not stop anybody from coming.

“Qatar is a very welcoming country,” he said when asked about LGBTQ guests at a news conference. “We welcome everybody, but also we expect and we want people to respect our culture.”

Some LGBTQ fans skip Qatar World Cup, fearing hostility

Infantino on Saturday said he had confirmed with Qatar’s leaders that all fans would be welcome, regardless of religion, race or sexual orientation.

“This was our requirement, and the Qatari state sticks to that requirement,” he said. “Do you want to stay home and hammer and criticize and say how bad they are, these Arabs or these Muslims or whatever, because it’s not allowed to be publicly gay?”

He also addressed the ban on alcohol sales at World Cup stadiums, an eleventh-hour change announced Friday, saying the decision was made jointly between Qatar — a country that strictly limits alcohol sale and consumption in public places — and FIFA.

“Honestly, if this is the biggest issue we have for the World Cup, I will resign immediately and go to the beach and relax,” he said.

‘Absolutely astounding’

Human rights advocates swiftly criticized Infantino’s remarks.

“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,” Steve Cockburn, Amnesty International’s head of economic and social justice, said in a statement.

Cockburn said FIFA should use a significant part of its profits from the World Cup to compensate migrant workers and their families if the organization “is to salvage anything from this tournament.”

Criticism came from elsewhere as well.

“You do not know what it feels like to be gay, Infantino, you do not know what it feels like to be African, and you cannot conflate being discriminated against because of red hair and freckles to what any of the groups you’ve just referenced have experienced,” Sky Sports reporter Melissa Reddy said in a broadcast from Qatar posted to Twitter.

“I do not think Infantino is the right man to speak about hypocrisy. I do not think ‘whataboutism’ is the correct route for a FIFA president to try and enforce change,” Reddy said. “If we all get stuck on what’s happened before or what’s going on elsewhere and we have to stay silent because of that, we will never bring about any effective change.”

As host, Qatar will kick off the event, playing against Ecuador in Sunday’s only game at 11 a.m. Eastern time.

World Cup in Qatar

The latest: The World Cup continues with Group G winner Brazil taking on Group H runner-up South Korea in a round-of-16 game in Doha, Qatar. The winner of this game will play Croatia in a quarterfinal on Friday after the Croatians beat Japan in penalty kicks earlier Monday. Follow our live coverage for the latest news, analysis and highlights.

USMNT: The U.S. men’s national team fell to the Netherlands, 3-1, on Saturday in the opening match of the round of 16. The United States has not won a World Cup knockout match since 2002, when it beat regional rival Mexico in the round of 16 in South Korea.

Knock out round schedule: A World Cup group stage filled with shocking upsets and dramatic turnarounds will now give way to a knockout round that promises more surprises.

Perspective: “The incremental progress was clear, but more than that, the players performed in a matter that indicates they are on a path to immense growth. There is a cohesion and energy about the United States that should inspire belief.” Read Jerry Brewer on the U.S. men’s national team’s future.

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