In an explosive monologue at the start of a news conference in Doha, Infantino – the boss of world soccer’s governing body – accused Western critics of Qatar’s human rights record of hypocrisy.
“What we Europeans have been doing for the last 3,000 years, we should be apologizing for the next 3,000 years before starting to give moral lessons,” he said. “Reform and change takes time. It took hundreds of years in our countries in Europe. It takes time everywhere, the only way to get results is by engaging … not by shouting.”
The tournament, which starts on Sunday, is the first World Cup to be held in the Middle East, but it has been mired in controversy, with much of the build-up focusing on human rights, from the death of migrant workers and the conditions many have endured in Qatar, to LGBTQ and women’s rights.
Infantino, despite admitting things weren’t perfect, said some criticism was “profoundly unjust” and accused the West of double standards.
Steve Cockburn, Amnesty International’s head of economic and social justice, said in a statement: “In brushing aside legitimate human rights criticisms, Gianni Infantino is dismissing the enormous price paid by migrant workers to make his flagship tournament possible – as well as FIFA’s responsibility for it.
He added that “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.
“If there is one tiny glimmer of hope, it is that Infantino announced that FIFA would establish a legacy fund after the World Cup. This cannot be mere window dressing, however. If FIFA is to salvage anything from this tournament, it must announce that it will invest a significant part of the $6 billion the organisation will make from this tournament and make sure this fund is used to compensate workers and their families directly.”
Nicholas McGeehan, director of FairSquare, a non-profit human rights organization, said in a statement: “Infantino’s comments were as crass as they were clumsy and suggest that the FIFA president is getting his talking points direct from the Qatari authorities.
“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.”
And Mustafa Qadri, chief executive of international human rights organization Equidem, also said in a statement: “History will not judge this moment kindly. Infantino’s speech was an insult to the thousands of hard-working women and men who have made the World Cup possible.
“He had a perfect opportunity to acknowledge that thousands of women and men from the poorest countries came to the richest only to face deception, exploitation and discrimination.
“Every day workers are contacting Equidem about unpaid wages, abuse and being terrified about speaking out for fear of retaliation from employers. There is a solution here: Infantino should establish a comprehensive compensation fund and demand Qatar establish an independent migrant workers’ centre so workers have a safe space to raise complaints and get the support they need.”
The Guardian reported last year that 6,500 South Asian migrant workers have died in Qatar since the country was awarded the World Cup in 2010, most of whom were involved in low-wage, dangerous labor, often undertaken in extreme heat.
The report did not connect all 6,500 deaths with World Cup infrastructure projects and has not been independently verified by CNN.
Hassan Al Thawadi – the man in charge of leading Qatar’s preparations – told CNN’s Becky Anderson last year that the Guardian’s 6,500 figure was a “sensational headline” that was misleading and that the report lacked context.
A government official has told CNN there had been three work-related deaths on stadiums and 37 non-work-related deaths. In a statement, the official said the Guardian’s figures were “inaccurate” and “wildly misleading.”
Eight new stadiums rose from the desert, and the Gulf state expanded its airport, constructed new hotels, rail and highways. All would have been constructed by migrant workers, who – according to Amnesty International – account for 90% of the workforce in a near-three million population.
Since 2010, when Qatar was awarded the World Cup, migrant workers have faced delayed or unpaid wages, forced labor, long hours in hot weather, employer intimidation and an inability to leave their jobs because of the country’s sponsorship system, human rights organizations have found.
Lise Klaveness, President of Norwegian Football, told CNN’s Amanda Davies that FIFA had the opportunity to depoliticize the World Cup but that Infantino “did the opposite” with his comments on Saturday.
In April, Klaveness delivered a stinging speech that labeled the decision to allow Qatar to host the World Cup as “unacceptable” and demanded that FIFA do more to defend its principles of human rights.
She said that Infantino’s monologue ahead of the first game demonstrated the pressure he was under.
“I think he went too far in reducing reasonable criticism to Western double standards,” she said. “Polarizing the West versus the East, it’s a bit dangerous. Think it’s very important that we give that feedback that we have to gather West and East.”
She added: “It’s reasonable criticism, not to Qatar itself, but to FIFA and international football bodies.”