DOHA, Qatar -- FIFA president Gianni Infantino's opening quote from the first World Cup press conference has made headlines, rightly so. "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," Infantino said. "Of course, I am not Qatari, I am not an Arab, I am not African, I am not gay, I am not disabled. But I feel like it, because I know what it means to be discriminated, to be bullied."
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Then he cited his own tale about growing up the son of parents who had emigrated from the poor south of Italy to Switzerland, as well as the fact that as a child he was bullied for his red hair and freckles.
As far as PR own goals are concerned, this one will be hard to beat. Infantino may have meant his words as a gesture of solidarity and inclusion, but they came across as clunky, crass and offensive. One experience as a discriminated against minority (Italian immigrants in post-war Switzerland and -- I guess -- kids with red hair and freckles) is not the same to the discrimination and experience of other minorities. Especially when you happen to be white, male, European, nondisabled and heterosexual.
Needless to say, there is a massive difference between the experience of Nepali and Bangladeshi migrant workers in Qatar and other Gulf nations (as well as elsewhere) and those of an Italian growing up in Brig, Switzerland, which is less than an hour's drive from the Italian border. A border which you do not need an "exit visa" to cross, unlike the migrant workers who, until seven years ago, often needed permission if they wanted to leave their jobs in Qatar and return home.
In some ways, we've been here before. Infantino gave a press conference at the 2018 World Cup in Russia wearing one of the polo shirts given out to tournament volunteers as a sign of recognition and solidarity for all those unpaid workers who gave up their time for the good of football. As a visual and as a concept, that too backfired because most understand that a guy standing outside a stadium in a bib directing traffic isn't the same as a man in a suit who is handsomely paid to deliver a World Cup.
In Qatar, the press conference took an unusual turn at the end when FIFA's director of media relations, Bryan Swanson, spoke up to say: "I am sitting here as a gay man in Qatar. We have received assurances that everyone will be welcome and I believe everyone will be. Just because [Infantino] is not gay, does not mean he does not care. He does. You see the public side and I see the private side."
It's pretty much unprecedented for a communications person, whose job in press conferences is usually simply to decide who gets to ask questions, to make such a personal announcement. But this was one extraordinary press conference. And while the world will focus on Infantino's malaprops, there's another angle to this. Whatever pretense of politics, religion and morality not being a part of the conversation around sport is now gone. This probably suits Infantino and those who want FIFA to be seen as some kind of positive agent for change.
Heck, a few days ago at the G-20 meeting in Bali, Indonesia, Infantino called for a ceasefire in the Russia-Ukraine conflict during the World Cup. He talked about how he had used his political influence to arrange for direct flights from Israel to Doha where Palestinians and Israelis would be sitting side by side. He reminded everyone that, under his leadership, FIFA inserted all sorts of human rights requirements for nations wishing to bid for the World Cup. (It's not clear whether the current version of Qatar would meet them, but it's pretty obvious the 2010 version would not).
He said that not only had Qatar getting the World Cup already led to significant reform in labor practices (minimum wages, better working and safety conditions and the abolition of the kafala system, with its de facto "exit visa") but also he would go further, citing his efforts to set up a permanent office of the United Nations' International Labor Organization in Doha (to monitor treatment of workers) as well as the possibility of a World Cup legacy fund that could bolster compensation for workers injured on the job.
In 2014, E60 went to Qatar to report on the plight of migrant workers there. This spring, they went back, to see what has changed, and not changed, in the last eight years.
If Stanley Rous, one of his predecessors as FIFA president and the man who refused to back the boycott of apartheid-era South Africa 60-odd years ago because "politics and sport shouldn't mix," had heard this, he probably would have been appalled at the overreach. Yet this is where we are and it's probably a better place than when we stuck our heads in the sand and pretended sports existed in some kind of entertainment vacuum, removed from the real world.
Most around the world can agree, for example, that migrant workers should be treated in a decent way. That's an accepted, universal value. LGBTQIA+ rights? In many countries yes, in others, like Qatar, not so much, possibly because there are religious and cultural roots to the discrimination, ones that were once commonplace around the world.
And when you do wade into it, you come uncomfortably close to the third rail of religion and morality, which is generally not a good place for the president of a global organization to be.
Indeed, when Infantino went there during his speech, he stumbled into another pitfall when he talked about how long it had taken Western nations to "make progress" on issues such as LGBTQIA+ rights and even universal suffrage (women in Appenzell, Switzerland only gained the right to vote in 1990).
All of the above is true, but the problem is when you define it as progress you are implicitly saying that those who don't share those views are "behind" and "backward." The whole "it took us a long time, they'll catch up to us eventually" argument suits progressives but risks upsetting folks who, for whatever reason, may view it -- wrongly, in my opinion -- as decay.
In fact, in the same speech he said that Europe was in no position to be giving out "moral lessons" and instead should be apologizing "for the next 3,000 years" for its past actions (presumably a reference to colonialism and the exploitation of much of the rest of the world). But isn't believing that members of the LGBTQIA+ community should not be discriminated against fundamentally "moral lessons" in how you should be treating other human beings?
Then there was the answer he gave to a question about Iran, who face England on Monday, and the government's repression of women and the violent crackdown on dissenters. It hit close to home because Infantino led the push for Iran to allow women into stadiums to watch men's football a few years ago, overturning a long-standing ban.
Here, he sounded like Stanley Rous, saying that it was two teams playing football, not two regimes. And that taking action against Iran would be unfair, unless "you think 80 million Iranians are all bad." Had there been a Russian in the room that person might have said: "So does that mean you think 145 million Russians are all bad? Because you banned Russia from World Cup qualifying after my government started a war with Ukraine."
You can see Infantino's reasoning. Russia was subject to a UN resolution condemning the invasion, Iran's abuses have not been addressed in the same way and, however horrific, remain a domestic matter, not directly affecting other nations. Having Iran fans -- many from the Iranian diaspora and sharply opposed to the regime -- may actually highlight what is going on there. And, of course, there's realpolitik: Iran is here and they kick off in 48 hours.
Infantino could have said any of those things. He didn't. He went with the "not all Iranians" angle which, in light of Russia's absence, felt tone deaf.
Infantino's words speak to something else. He may be a politician in the sense that he holds an elected position and, evidently, is pretty good at garnering the support of most of the world's 211 FIFA member nations. Indeed, he will run for re-election for FIFA president unopposed this spring.
Where he's most definitely not a politician is in communicating with the media -- and, probably, fans as a whole -- in a way that they understand and can relate to. Which is how you end up with Saturday's extraordinary press conference. As one long-time FIFA-watcher put it to me: "Gasoline doesn't usually put out fires." Also true is that -- whether because FIFA is delivering for most of its members or because the bar had been set so low by the corrupt regime before Infantino took over in 2016 -- Infantino might as well be wearing a fire-proof suit.