It seemed like a last-ditch effort — no longer a plea — from Gianni Infantino on Saturday as he tried to get focus to shift from Qatar to football.
On the eve of the tournament opener between the hosts and Ecuador, the Fifa president launched a tirade against the Western world, accusing them of hypocrisy in their intense scrutiny of this tiny Gulf state, which is hosting the biggest football party in the world.
Qatar has been under the spotlight since it was awarded the right to host the World Cup 12 years ago. While that award was under suspicion from day one — leading to an investigation that brought down the previous hierarchy of Fifa — Qatar has been faced with fierce questions: over the rights of migrant workers and treatment of LGBTQ people to the sale of alcohol and the ability of a country of the size of Qatar to host a World Cup, as well as the timing of it, have all been questioned fiercely.
Infantino dwelled on Europe’s past, their right to question such issues that existed there only decades ago, and accused the West of ‘hypocrisy’ in its reporting in an hour-long speech. He praised how Qatar had reformed itself.
Fifa chief launches impassioned defence of host nation, recalls ‘problematic’ history of ‘European morals’
“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,” he said in his opening remarks, before detailing the way Qatar had addressed those issues by improving its labour laws and saying everyone, regardless of race, colour or sexual orientation was welcome at the tournament.
“What we Europeans have been doing for the past 3,000 years, we should be apologising for the next 3,000 years before we start giving moral lessons to people,” the Fifa boss said, noting Europe’s issues with accepting migrants, its difficulty in accepting homosexuality and its long reluctance to giving women rights to vote.
It was impassioned, it was unfettered. It was an extraordinary way of opening the World Cup; but there was one thing Infantino was sure about: “Once the ball starts rolling, the focus will be on football.”
This is what FIFA and Qatari organisers have wanted for long. Now, it’s finally time.
In fact, it took just an hour after Infantino finished talking, that the conversation shifted to how the World Cup will play out.
Fifa’s Technical Study Group, led by its Chief of Global Football Development Arsene Wenger, then took centre stage on the same podium where Infantino sat.
“Football has changed a lot and every four years we face something new,” said Wenger, the legendary former Arsenal coach. “The World Cup in Russia taught us that it is not necessary to have more control of the ball to win. The teams that will go into the final will be very good on a technical level.”
The World Cup in Qatar is the first that is not being held in its traditional summer slot for the Northern Hemisphere. It’s forced a mid-season break for the European clubs and players have only had a week with their national teams ahead of the tournament.
Juergen Klinsmann, a World Cup winner with Germany in 1990, said it will be a challenge for the coaches but he didn’t expect the intensity to drop.
“It’s a challenge for all the teams,” he said, sitting alongside Wenger. “But I also see some positives. The coaches don’t need to build the players physically. They need to work more on the mental aspect of the game, get them focused and give them the right energy. Teams are fit, they’re hungry and it all starts tomorrow.”
Across team bases as well, all the chatter is about football now.
Croatian forwards Bruno Petkovic and Marko Livaja, who lost the final four years ago to France, said their newer iteration still had it in them to reach the final.
Over at the Al Shamal Stadium, Germany’s teen sensation Yosoufa Moukoko said he was looking to bang in the goals.
The focus on Sunday, however, will solely be on the hosts. Fifa had to adjust the schedule and bring forward the dates of this condensed World Cup forward by a day to ensure Qatar got the chance to open the World Cup.
“To play at a World Cup has been a childhood dream,” captain Hasan Al-Haydos told reporters as Qatar prepared to make their debut at the tournament.
How far the reigning Asian champions go at their home tournament remains to be seen, but the further they go, the more excitement will build in the host nation.
So far, the response has been tepid compared to past world cups. But fans poured into the Al Bidda Park as Fifa opened the Fan Festival on Saturday evening. Simultaneously, a street festival also opened on the Doha Corniche.
“It’s really exciting … a lot of fun,” Mitul Sarkar, a fan from India who had also travelled to the World Cup in Brazil, told Dawn. “They’re trying to create that excitement. This is a much, much bigger than the fan fest in Sao Paulo and we’re having a really good time here.”
As the fireworks went off, there was a loud roar — one that FIFA and Qatar’s organisers have long hoped would drown out the noise surrounding the World Cup.
Published in Dawn, November 20th, 2022