DOHA, Qatar – On the day before the World Cup began, FIFA celebrated Festivus.
For 90 minutes Saturday, FIFA president Gianni Infantino held an “airing of grievances,” taking aim in a deluded, hypocritical and factually ignorant screed at all those who have criticized soccer’s governing body for putting the World Cup in Qatar.
He co-opted the plights of migrant workers and the LGBTQ community, bemoaning the fact he’d been bullied as a child because of his red hair and freckles. He gave Qatar a pass for its continuing bigotry and exploitation because of what western countries once did. He chided critics for their double standards without the slightest recognition of his own.
“It’s sad that we can’t focus on football,” Infantino lamented as he put on his martyr’s cloak. “You want to criticize someone, come to me. Criticize me. Crucify me. I’m here for that. Don’t criticize the players, don’t criticize Qatar.”
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How sweet of Infantino to defend the honor of his new Qatari besties, I wasn’t sure they had any. But I suppose blind loyalty is what’s demanded after all the millions the Qataris have put in the pockets of Infantino and other FIFA members over the last 12-plus years.
Infantino isn’t wrong to say the United States and European nations have had their own issues with human rights. The United States is still trying to heal the scars left on our society by slavery. Europe has been rebuilding its walls in recent years rather than tearing them down.
But those countries didn’t buy a World Cup to try and sportswash their sins as Qatar did. Those countries haven’t turned FIFA into their useful idiot as Qatar has.
“Deflection and whataboutery have always been at the core of Qatar’s PR efforts to defend its rank failures, and now they have the FIFA president doing their work for them,” Nicholas McGeehan, director of the human rights group FairSquare, said in response to Infantino’s comments.
FIFA screwed up. It gave Qatar the World Cup thinking it could keep its hosts in line. I’ll be charitable and say maybe a few members even thought hosting the world’s largest sporting event could spark change in the theocratic regime.
Qatar’s rulers had no interest in any of that, however. They wanted to be considered one of the world’s elites, and figured a shiny new stadium or eight would blind everyone to the country’s raft of human rights abuses. And rather than even the slightest acknowledgment that mistakes have been made, Infantino spouted their party line.
He dismissed the unsafe conditions and low wages for migrant workers because at least they’re making more than they would have in their home countries. He addressed LGBTQ fans’ concerns for their safety in a country where homosexuality is still criminalized by saying Qatari officials had assured him that “everyone is welcome.”
They’d also once promised they wouldn’t interfere with FIFA’s sponsorship deals, only to ban alcoholic beer at stadiums two days before the start of the World Cup. But I digress.
“Of course there are still things that don’t work and need to be addressed,” Infantino said. “But this moral lesson giving, one-sided, it’s just hypocrisy.”
To dismiss standing up for the marginalized and those whose health and safety are put at risk, and to do it with such a display of petulance and anger, was astonishing to see from the head of a global sports organization. This isn’t a Seinfeld episode. Real people have died. Real people are afraid for their health and safety. Real people are being treated as if they are not fully human.
That Infantino and his Qatari friends have been rankled by the criticisms is simply too damn bad.
“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,” Amnesty International’s Steve Cockburn said.
Infantino said repeatedly that engaging with people is more effective at fixing societal ills than hammering away with criticism. Perhaps next time he should heed his own words.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.