FIFA president Gianni Infantino raised eyebrows in his attempts to hit out at criticism of Qatar on the eve of the World Cup.
Infantino was trying to make the point about hypocrisy, but risked overshadowing his message with a poorly worded monologue, in which he declared: “Today I feel Qatari. Today I feel Arabic. Today I feel African. Today I feel gay. Today I feel disabled.”
The football boss was specifically responding to criticism of Qatar from Europe, as he held a press conference around just 30 hours until the tournament kicks off in Sunday’s opening clash between hosts Qatar and Ecuador – which we will bring you LIVE on talkSPORT.
The game’s global governing body has been attacked for its decision to take the finals to Qatar, where the treatment of migrant workers and the rights of LGBTQ+ people have been in the spotlight.
Instead of hyping up excitement for the tournament the day before it begins, the chief instead used the opportunity to try and cool some of the heat FIFA has come under.
Infantino had a strong word for any European critics of Qatar, saying history suggests they are in no place to ‘give moral lessons to people’.
But it’s likely all the focus will be about one section of his extraordinary speech, rather than his overall message.
Speaking on Saturday morning, Infantino said: “We have told many, many lessons from some Europeans, from the western world.
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“I think for what we Europeans have been doing the last 3,000 years we should be apologising for next 3,000 years before starting to give moral lessons to people.”
Infantino then added: “Today I feel Qatari. Today I feel Arabic. Today I feel African. Today I feel gay. Today I feel disabled. Today I feel a migrant worker.
“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, as a foreigner in a foreign country. As a child I was bullied – because I had red hair and freckles, plus I was Italian, so imagine.
“What do you do then? You try to engage, make friends. Don’t start accusing, fighting, insulting, you start engaging.
“And this is what we should be doing.”
talkSPORT reporter Alex Crook was at the press conference in Doha, and gave the Weekend Sports Breakfast his account of Infantino’s extraordinary speech.
“Extraordinary is the word,” he said. “I arrived here this morning not really knowing what to expect from the FIFA president.
“We were told at the start of the news conference that it would only go on for around 45 minutes, and that would include a question and answer session at the end, but here we are an hour and a half later and it still hasn’t actually come to a close as yet.
“One of our newspaper colleagues remarked that what started with the aim of being a Martin Luther King style speech quickly descended into one David Brent would have given.
“It really was absolutely incredible some of the things Infantino was saying.
“He was asked during the Q&A session if it was an attack on the West, an attack on Europe, and he denied that, he said, ‘I’m European, I’m just saying we’re not perfect’.
“It’s ironic that Infantino and FIFA have made it clear to all of the nations competing at this World Cup that they should steer away from political conversations and focus on the football, and yet he did anything but this morning. There was very little mention of what will actually take place on the football field when the tournament starts tomorrow.
“I expected that Infantino would probably try and dodge any questions about the migrant workers, about the fact it’s illegal to be openly gay here in Qatar, but he addressed that and said, ‘As FIFA president I believe publicly you should be allowed to be gay’, but he did say that if you asked his father, who is no longer with us, he might give you a different answer.
“So lots of extraordinary and downright strange comments made from Infantino. He did urge us in the media, don’t criticise the players, don’t criticise the coaches, don’t even criticise Qatar, criticise and crucify me and FIFA if you like, but let’s focus on football.
“He also promised, as he always does, that this will be the greatest World Cup ever.
“Obviously he was asked about the fact Qatar at the very last minute have decided not to sell alcohol in and around the stadium venues, and he said, ‘If that’s all I have to worry about, then I’ll sign for that and I’ll spend the rest of the tournament on the beach’.
“He also said if you can’t go for three hours without a drink, then maybe that’s your problem.
“All in all, it was probably one of the most extraordinary press conferences I’ve ever witnessed, and I think I can speak for most of the other 400 journalists in the room as well.
“It struck me that he just wanted to just get everything off his chest. He spoke without taking any questions for up to an hour. It felt to me that this was a very angry FIFA president and he wanted to fire some shots, to be honest.”
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