DOHA, Qatar—Through the enduring howls of outrage over Qatar, Gianni Infantino is not completely isolated from the divisiveness of the looming World Cup.
“I was one of those as well criticizing when I was elected president,” the FIFA leader recalled.
This is a World Cup hosting decision—the most contentious in FIFA’s history—inherited by Infantino on taking on the world football leadership in 2016 but one he has embraced.
If Qatar wants a glowing endorsement of its transformation to offset protests from human rights groups, it can turn to Infantino. There was no need for the Swiss-Italian to fly in to Doha for this week’s FIFA meetings and World Cup finals’ draw. Recent years have been largely spent here for Infantino, based in the tiny Persian Gulf nation rather than around FIFA headquarters in Zurich.
So he has been surrounded by the low-paid migrant workforce that has been relied on to upgrade the country at a cost Qatar has put at $200 billion. The commitment by Qatar to spend on stadiums, hotels and transport infrastructure has not always been matched by the need to protect laborers from being exploited by abusive employers scrimping on pay, violating their rights and not providing safe working conditions.
“Of course, it’s not paradise,” Infantino said. “Of course it’s not perfect. Of course, there is still work to be done, but we need to stay there. We need to continue. We need to work together. We need to encourage change because not everyone wants change, even in Qatar or in the Gulf. But the leadership wants change.”
The weight of pressure from human rights groups has produced improvements in conditions at a pace unimaginable before the World Cup—from the introduction of a minimum wage to the dismantling of the “kafala” sponsorship system binding workers to their employer.
“The legacy in terms of human rights, workers’ rights is, and has been, reached already before the World Cup,” Infantino said during a 20-minute conversation ahead of the FIFA Council and Congress meetings. “It’s important that it is here to stay and it will stay. It will stay because it is enshrined in legislation.”
Enforcement of those laws is the priority, particularly beyond the World Cup final on December 18, and providing greater transparency on worker deaths with compensation for violations of rights.
Not all change can be delivered by the time of kickoff on Nov. 21 of the first World Cup to be staged in the Middle East. True equality does not exist while Qatar still criminalizes same-sex relations, while claiming it will uphold rights of fans in same-sex relations.
“Everyone will see that everyone is welcome here in Qatar, even if we speak about LGBTQ+,” Infantino said. “I really believe that when I hear some of the voices that, ‘Well an Arab country doesn’t deserve to organize a World Cup because there is no history of football’ or some nonsense like that I completely disagree … because the whole world deserves to have the World Cup.
“This time it is in an Arab country. There were some issues. We have been able to help a little bit addressing them. They have been addressed.”
The outcome of the hosting vote in 2010 was investigated for corruption, which could not be verified as swaying the result by FIFA’s external legal experts, but allegations raised by American prosecutors persist even as Qatar would prefer to focus on the games to be played in its eight gleaming new stadiums.
Netherlands coach Louis van Gaal was last week still bemoaning the “ridiculous” FIFA decision.
“I really hope that everyone who wants to criticize—before criticizing looks at the facts,” Infantino said.
The draw for the 32-team tournament on Friday is a moment Qatar hopes to shift attention to attracting fans to come, beyond the 800,000 tickets already sold. The challenge will be accommodating them with barely 90,000 rooms available for them.
“That is a challenge,” Infantino said, “but the organization is specifically geared up for that.”
What helps is the thawing of regional tensions that persisted from 2017 to last year with neighbors even threatening Qatar’s very hosting. Now flights have resumed from Qatar to the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.
“Maybe somebody wants to make a day in Dubai or Abu Dhabi or Muscat or Riyadh or Jeddah,” Infantino said. “And they will have the opportunity as well to go and visit maybe other countries throughout their stay in this region.”
Such visits can broaden the visitor experience of fans who will be attending games all within a 50-kilometer radius of Doha.
Hosting the games in such close proximity poses security challenges for a country not used to a mass influx of sports fans—and ones who could drink heavily where it is permitted in at least fan zones and hotels.
“It is a challenge because … usually in the World Cup, you have only two fan groups in one particular time, in one particular city,” Inafntino said. “Here you will have all 32 fan groups, plus all other football fans were neutral who will be in the same place at the same time throughout the event.
“I believe that having so many nationalities and so many people coming together, mingling together will be really beneficial and will also move and elevate the World Cup into a big, big social gathering.”
It is the unity Infantino desires at a time of division in the world which meant FIFA threw Russia out of contention to qualify for this tournament over the invasion of Ukraine ordered by President Vladimir Putin in February.
It is a conflict launched by the 2018 World Cup hosts that Infantino is reticent to discuss in depth on this occasion.
“We are at this moment in a situation where there is a war in in Europe, terrible, and conflicts as well in other parts of the world,” Infantino said. “To have occasions in which we can bring people together should be occasions that we don’t have to waste for society going forward.
“So I think the world needs a moment as well of … coming together. And so we want to be the best in the world.”
Convincing the skeptics remains the mission for Infantino, FIFA and Qatar.
Image credits: AP