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Gianni Infantino Loses His Grip On The World Cup

Cui Nan/China News Service via Getty Images

FIFA president Gianni Infantino (feel free to call him John Baby in your head), gave an address at the Qatar World Cup on Saturday that lasted more than an hour. Infantino was defensive and surly, and looked completely miserable while he sat up on the dais and did the thing that powerful executives and politicians tend to do when they have run out of ways to conceal their avarice and incompetence: try to convince everyone that they have feelings.

Infantino started his speech with a page straight out of Andrew Cuomo's playbook:

After talking about how he knows how it feels to be discriminated against because he was bullied in school for having red hair, Infantino pivoted to defending Qatar and FIFA against their many critics. Infantino made several appeals to hypocrisy, clinging to the argumentative strategy best loved by people who cannot defend or explain themselves in any meaningful sense.

"I think for what we Europeans have been doing for the last 3,000 years around the world, we should be apologizing for the next 3,000 years before starting to give moral lessons," he said in reference to Qatar's various human rights abuses.

"We in Europe, we close our borders and we don't allow, practically, any workers from these countries," he said about the thousands of migrant workers that Qatar drafted into a system of modern-day slavery in order to build World Cup infrastructure.

Infantino went on like this for about 100 minutes. There's no point in grappling with much of what Infantino had to say, though, because only a child needs it explained to them that bad having happened in the past, or currently happening in other parts of the world, does not immunize everyone else from criticism of the bad things they choose to do. And nobody—not even a baby!—needs it explained to them that it is in poor taste for a rich white guy to stand in front of the world and say, "I feel disabled."

What is noteworthy about Infantino's remarks, though, is how clearly they demonstrate the degree to which he and FIFA got in over their heads with this World Cup. When FIFA officials gobbled up all that bribe money in exchange for rewarding the 2022 World Cup to Qatar, they probably did so under the assumption that money would continue to take care everything going forward. They more than anyone else would have been aware of the fact that every international competition is a human rights disaster. Many have been held in countries with spotty human rights records, and to host one of these competitions all but requires the greasing of palms, the displacement of poor populations, the brutalization of the unhoused, and billions of wasted dollars. These competitions continue to come and go with little to no fuss, so why would things be anything different in Qatar?

What FIFA has continually run into in the years since awarding the World Cup to Qatar is a host nation that is not so keen on maintaining a facade of responsible stewardship. Whereas other countries have effectively played the PR game and opted for some level of discretion around the most unseemly parts of hosting a World Cup or Olympics, Qatar has been nothing but brazen. The country didn't even try to hide the fact that it was snatching passports from migrant workers, subjecting them to abusive labor practices, and killing them by the thousands in order to get its stadiums built on time. Its Supreme Committee has spent more than a decade meeting all criticism with defensive retorts; it moved the damn tournament from summer to winter; it has seemingly put its foot down about players wearing pro-LGBTQ armbands in a country where it's illegal to be gay; it decided to outlaw beer sales at the last minute; it built a demoralizing tent city for visiting fans; it's already hassling journalists on the ground; it flew in fake fans who were there to pretend to have a good time in exchange for money, and then decided not to pay them after all.

I imagine all of this is what was weighing on Infantino's mind when he took the stage yesterday. He got shoved out there to try and defend the indefensible in a country that has shown zero interest in playing by the established rules. He was forced to speak on behalf of what the World Cup actually is, rather than what it has previously been so good at pretending to be. No wonder he was so sad.

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